ST. GEORGE – A U.S. district judge ruled this week that the Bureau of Land Management does not have the authority to regulate hydraulic fracking on federal and Indian lands.
The proposed BLM rule — comprising several regulations — would have required companies to seek approval before conducting fracking operations on public lands. It would have allowed the agency to review operations before they began and ensure there was no danger to drinking water supplies, according to information from Earthjustice. It would have also forced disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking fluid.
The regulations were supported by a coalition of six large conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. However, the case was brought by Colorado and Wyoming and joined by Utah, North Dakota and the Ute Indian Tribe. Utah joined the lawsuit in May 2015, with Gov. Gary Herbert saying the BLM rule unlawfully interferes with state regulations that already address the process.
The lawsuit examined whether the BLM had the legal authority to enact environmental regulations for fracking.
Nationally, fracking has become controversial because of reported contamination of wells and groundwater, a lack of disclosure about the chemicals used in fracking and concerns about storage and disposal of fracking fluids. However, the order from U.S. District Court of Wyoming that was issued Tuesday stated that wasn’t the issue at hand.
“The issue before this court is not whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States,” U.S. District Court of Wyoming Judge Scott Skavdahl wrote in the order.
“The Constitutional role of this Court is to interpret the applicable statutory enactments,” the order continued, “and determine whether Congress has delegated to the Department of Interior legal authority to regulate hydraulic fracking. It has not.”
The court noted that existing statutes do not support more specific authority over oil and gas drilling operations than the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 allows, according to analysis from the Mineral Law blog.
The Utah Attorney General’s Office released a statement of support for the order, echoing Herbert’s statements in May 2015 that Utah already regulates fracking within its borders.
“We welcome the district court’s holding that the Bureau of Land Management acted beyond its authority,” Attorney General Sean Reyes said in the statement. “At the heart of this case are the proper mechanisms for the passage of law and regulations. Without Congressional authority, the BLM endeavored to expand its mandate to include environmental regulation in an area reserved to the states and other federal agencies.”
The court ruling came in response to a final rule issued by the BLM in March 2015 that applied to fracking on federal and Indian lands. The rule was to take effect June 24, 2015, but was postponed following a court hearing.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — is a way of extracting oil or gas from deep underground. It involves the injection of a fluid mixture of water, chemicals and materials such as sand or man-made ceramic particles into shale beds in order to free up petroleum resources. The process causes fractures in the rocks below the earth’s surface, which are opened and widened by injecting the fluid mixture at very high pressure.
The combination of fracking and innovations in horizontal drilling has increased oil and natural gas production substantially by freeing up petroleum products that were previously not recoverable. Fracking is responsible for the recent boom in U.S. oil production, according to a Wired report by Mason Inman published in January 2015.
Fracking in Utah
Fracking has been occurring in Utah since the 1960s. Approximately 60 percent of oil and gas extraction in Utah happens in Uintah and Duchesne counties, John Rogers, assistant director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, said in an earlier interview. It also takes place in Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties.
There are currently no active oil wells in Washington County, Washington County Administrator Dean Cox said in an earlier interview. Historically, the last active wells were located in the North Creek area near Virgin in the 1960s.
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