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Recent Federal Court ruling makes it nearly impossible to regulate fracking on federal lands; ignores multiple public health risks

Posted by Paola Avendano on June 29, 2016

frackingU.S District Judge Scott Skavdahl recently struck down the Obama Administration's regulations on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands. He ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was not given authority by Congress to establish rules on hydraulic fracturing.

The states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and North Dakota, along with the Ute Indian Tribe, had sued the U.S. Department of Interior on the grounds that it devised arbitrary regulations.

In agreeing with the states, Judge Skavdahl wrote, "The issue before this Court is not whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States," but rather, "whether Congress has delegated to the Department of Interior legal authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. It has not."

Under U.S. federal law, hydraulic fracturing is exempt from key provisions in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. This court decision adds to the reoccurring failure to make oil and gas companies accountable for their actions.

Barbara Gottlieb, PSR's Environment and Health Program Director, stated, "This is a really unfortunate ruling. We need the BLM's standards to protect us from toxic water contamination on these public lands of ours, and from the severe climate-damaging effects of methane leaks. Fortunately, we think this decision will be overturned on appeal."

The rules set by the Department of the Interior would have affected more than 90 percent of the oil and gas wells on federal lands that use the hydraulic fracturing method. The oil and gas companies would have been required to:

  • build strong cement barriers between the wells and nearby water zones;
  • disclose the chemicals used in the process to the Bureau of Land Management and the public;
  • implement stronger storage practices for recovered waste water, and
  • present information on the geology, depth, and locations of existing wells in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Overwhelming scientific evidence has linked hydraulic fracturing to multiple environmental and public health impacts. Some of the major risks include:

  • chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing fluid include known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and highly toxic substances;
  • hydraulic fracturing pipes sometimes pass through underground aquifers; should these pipes crack, these water sources could be contaminated;
  • the number of earthquakes associated with deep underground injection of waste water has increased, and
  • methane leaks from across the fracked-gas lifecycle greatly accelerate climate change.

As a result of this court decision, oil and gas companies will be able to continue using the hydraulic fracturing method in the absence of strict federal regulation. The environment and public health will continue to be impacted by fracking on public lands, both in the short-term and long-term.

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