RULES ARE (APPARENTLY) MADE TO BE FRACKED . . .

Posted on March 23, 2017 by William Session

The news flies fast and heavy from Washington almost daily on the fate of every manner of environmental program, rule or regulation. An exciting time to be an environmental lawyer. The latest entrant into the “what’s next” sweepstakes came from the Tenth Circuit just a few days ago.

The Court of Appeals sent a pointed inquiry to the newcomers at the Department of Justice about the future of the federal government’s (recent) historic efforts to curb hydraulic fracturing:

Given the recent change of Administration and the related personnel changes in the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior, the Court is concerned that the briefing filed by the Federal Appellants in these cases may no longer reflect the position of the Federal Appellants. By statement filed electronically on or before March 15, 2017, the Federal Appellants are asked to confirm whether their position on the issues presented remain the same, or have now changed.

The DOJ’s response will very likely determine the fate of the Obama era Bureau of Land Management hydraulic-fracturing rule. That rule required drilling operators to follow “ . . . widely-accepted” best practices for preventing environmental or resource harm. 

In State of Wyoming et.al v. State of Utah et. al, that rule was set aside and its enforcement enjoined by a Wyoming district court in 2016. The district court set aside the rule, holding that the federal government had no authority to set the standards that federal lessees had to follow when extracting oil and gas from federally owned resources through hydraulic fracturing. The DOJ appealed and the Tenth Circuit subsequently instructed the district court to vacate its preliminary-injunction order.

The DOJ spearheaded the appeal of that ruling, asserting that the district court disregarded a central tenet of administrative law by substituting its own judgment for the government’s about the purview of the BLM’s regulatory reach. The DOJ argued that courts “must defer under Chevron to an agency’s interpretation of a statutory ambiguity that concerns the scope of the agency’s statutory authority.”

So the obvious question of the day is, will the new administration drop the appeal? The newly appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has stated publicly he supports fracking. With daily pronouncements from the White House about the surfeit of regulations strangling the economic engines of the country, it’s a good bet that the rule has seen its best and last days.

Perhaps more intriguing, should the appeal go forward, will be the somewhat conservative Tenth Circuit’s take on the now “institutional” Chevron deference embedded in countless appellate decisions over the last thirty-four years. As recently posted by ACOEL Fellow Chris Schraff, the views of Tenth Circuit veteran and Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch on the Chevron question could prove central to the concerns of some about the future of the administrative state,. 

For those who might not be familiar with Judge Gorsuch’s perspectives on the subject, review again his concurring opinion in Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch. His concurring opinion in that case begins:

There’s an elephant in the room with us today. We have studiously attempted to work our way around it and even left it unremarked. But the fact is Chevron and Brand X permit executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth. . . .

And continues in clearly provocative terms:

Whatever the agency may be doing under Chevron, the problem remains that courts are not fulfilling their duty to interpret the law and declare invalid agency actions inconsistent with those interpretations in the cases and controversies that come before them. A duty expressly assigned to them by the APA and one often likely compelled by the Constitution itself. That’s a problem for the judiciary. And it is a problem for the people whose liberties may now be impaired not by an independent decisionmaker seeking to declare the law’s meaning as fairly as possible — the decisionmaker promised to them by law — but by an avowedly politicized administrative agent seeking to pursue whatever policy whim may rule the day. . .

So, what do we in the environmental business expect the position of the federal government to be going forward? Is federal environment protectionism on its way out of the door? Will the EPA be judicially branded a “politicized administrative agent” by courts across the land and denied deference even if the Chevron doctrine survives? Will the courts and the public allow the progress on cleaner air, water and earth we have all witnessed—and even helped bring about over the last fifty years—to be . . . fracked?