Enviros jump into fracking rule litigation — on government’s side

By Ellen M. Gilmer | 06/03/2015 08:42 AM EDT

After two months of public speculation over how environmental groups would respond to the Obama administration’s new regulations for hydraulic fracturing, a coalition of conservation groups has come out on the government’s side — seeking to defend the rule in federal court.

The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Earthworks, the Conservation Colorado Education Fund, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and Western Resource Advocates yesterday asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming to allow them to intervene as respondents in two lawsuits that seek to block the new fracking rule. An industry suit contends that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management failed to consider steep compliance costs, while a challenge from affected states says the agency overstepped its authority in crafting the regulations.

The years-in-the-making rule, which regulates well construction, wastewater management and chemical disclosure for fracking on public and tribal lands, has elicited disappointment from environmental groups since its unveiling in March, with advocates calling it a missed opportunity to fully protect public lands. But the groups pushing to join the litigation say the last thing they want is a legal rebuff of the rule that sends regulators back to the drawing board.


"We would have liked to see BLM go further with these rules, but they nevertheless are an important step in the right direction," Western Resource Advocates President Jon Goldin-DuBois said in a statement. "They promise to reduce the number of chemical spills, groundwater contamination and other accidents."

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, added that winning the lawsuits is critical to protecting federal agencies’ power over development of public lands.

"Most important in this case is that the clear authority federal agencies have to oversee heavy industrial oil and gas activities on our public lands is maintained, if not further strengthened," he said in a statement.

The environmentalists’ involvement in the case may also keep regulators from compromising with industry and weakening the restrictions, said Earthjustice attorneys representing the groups (Greenwire, June 2).

"Without the Citizen Groups’ participation as intervenors, BLM will only have to address the arguments and demands of the Oil and Gas Groups — and not the Citizen Groups — when briefing the merits of this case, during any litigation over a remedy, and in settlement negotiations," attorneys wrote in a brief filed yesterday. "It is entirely foreseeable that such a scenario will lead BLM to further compromise the Citizen Groups’ interests in favor of the Oil and Gas Groups seeking to weaken or eliminate the Rule."

Gaining formal status in the lawsuits will also give the environmental groups the option to appeal any unfavorable court decisions that come down, even if Interior chooses not to.

But the coalition’s strategy does not signal any kind of consensus in the environmental community.

The Center for Biological Diversity told EnergyWire in an email yesterday that the industry and state lawsuits were unlikely to prevail over the rule, so the group is instead using its resources to continue pushing for an outright ban on fracking on public lands.

"The rule gives oil companies an easy way to hide what dangerous chemicals they’re using on our public lands, and the agency refused to consider more protective alternatives such as banning fracking," said Kassie Siegel, director of the CBD’s Climate Law Institute. "If we challenge the rule, it will be on these grounds."

Food and Water Watch, which has also taken a harder line against the rule, agreed, noting that it remains focused on advocating for a fracking ban on public lands.

Also absent from the coalition is the Natural Resources Defense Council, which said in March that it was evaluating its legal options to respond to the rule. The group did not respond by publication time to a request for comment.