President Obama’s environmental legacy hasn’t had a great year in court. Last October, a federal appeals court blocked an Environmental Protection Agency rule protecting wetlands, and in February, the Supreme Court pressed pause on his Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of Obama’s climate change agenda.
The latest blow came on Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl, an Obama appointee, struck down the Department of Interior’s fracking regulations. While the 2015 regulations weren’t considered especially stringent by environmentalists — who argued that the new rules “put the interests of big oil and gas above people’s health — they affected 750 million acres of public and Native American lands, or about 11 percent of the country’s natural gas production.
At first glance, Skavdahl’s 27-page ruling comes across as a major blow to any federal attempt to oversee fracking. The ruling notes that Congress specifically exempted Interior from regulating fracking fluids in a 2005 energy law.
“The issue before this Court is not whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States,” he wrote. The court’s role is to “determine whether Congress has delegated to the Department of Interior legal authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing. It has not.”
But New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity senior attorney Jack Lienke thinks the impact is rather narrow.
“This is not a good decision,” Lienke told Grist. “But it’s important to recognize that this case is not about the federal government’s authority to regulate fracking generally. It’s about one particular rule from one particular agency that addressed one particular aspect of fracking — the underground injection of fluids.”
According to Lienke, the ruling does not affect the much bigger problem of methane emissions or how the government leases federal lands.
“Even if this decision is upheld, it does not address BLM’s ability to regulate methane emissions from fracking operations on federal lands. And it certainly doesn’t address EPA’s ability to regulate those emissions.”
The government can appeal Skavdahl’s decision to the Tenth Circuit of appeals, which is roughly split between conservatives and liberals.
As for the other court tests of Obama’s legacy, we won’t know the final verdict until Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat is filled.