Fracking, the Separation of Powers, Economic Welfare, and the Role of the Public (Or Mirabile Dictu! An Obama-Appointed Federal Judge Who Believes in the Separation of Powers)

Alden Abbott —  30 June 2016

An interesting thing happened on June 21st.  Scott Skavdahl, a federal district court judge appointed by President Barack Obama, invalidated the “Fracking Rule” adopted by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Even more interesting, however, was the fact that, in so holding, the judge relied heavily on a rather dusty, moth-eaten eighteenth century political doctrine, the separation of powers.  What was behind this quaint decision?  See the slip opinion in State of Wyoming, State of North Dakota, State of Utah, and Ute Indian Tribe v. U.S. Department of the Interior to find out.

The facts are straightforward.  As the court explained, fracking – the procedure by which oil and gas producers inject water, sand, and certain chemicals into tight-rock formations (typically shale) to create fissures in the rock and allow oil and gas for collection in a well – is primarily responsible for the steady increase in domestic oil and natural gas production over the last decade.  Purportedly in response to “public concern about whether fracturing can lead to or cause the contamination of underground water sources,” the BLM in 2012 initiated a rulemaking to implement “additional regulatory effort and oversight” of this practice on federal and Indian lands, over which it exercises jurisdiction.  Three years later, on March 26, 2015, the BLM issued a final Fracking Rule.  Several states, an Indian tribe, and representatives of affected industries challenged the Rule under the Administrative Procedure Act as arbitrary, not in accordance with law, and in excess of the BLM’s statutory jurisdiction and authority.

In its review, the court rejected the Government’s argument that various statutes authorized BLM to promulgate the Rule.  Moreover, the court noted, significantly, that “the BLM has previously taken the position, up until promulgation of the Fracking Rule, that it lacked the authority or jurisdiction to regulate hydraulic fracking.”  Furthermore, under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, “Congress vested the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] with the authority and duty to regulate hydraulic fracturing on all lands, federal, state and tribal.”  Subsequently, in enacting the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EP Act), Congress sought “to expedite oil and gas development within the United States.”  Employing standard methods of statutory construction, the court then determined that “the 2005 EP Act’s explicit removal of the EPA’s regulatory authority over non-diesel hydraulic fracturing likewise precludes the BLM from regulating that activity, thereby removing fracking from the realm of federal regulation.”  It therefore concluded, as a matter of logic, that the BLM’s effort to regulate fracking on federal and Indian lands “through the Fracking Rule is in excess of its statutory authority and contrary to law.”

The court, however, did far more than rely on traditional tools of statutory construction in reaching its holding.  In a jurisprudential flourish, Judge Skavdahl explained that the logic of his decision was compelled by the separation of powers [citations and internal quotation marks omitted]:

As this Court has previously noted, our system of government operates based upon the principle of limited and enumerated powers assigned to the three branches of government. In its simplest form, the legislative branch enacts laws, the executive branch enforces those laws, and the judicial branch ensures that the laws passed and enforced are Constitutional. See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137, 176 (1803). A federal agency is a creature of statute and derives its existence, authority and powers from Congress alone. It has no constitutional or common law existence or authority outside that expressly conveyed to it by Congress. . . . In the absence of a statute conferring authority, then, an administrative agency has none. . . .  This Court must be guided to a degree by common sense as to the manner in which Congress would likely delegate a policy decision of such economic and political magnitude to an administrative agency.  Given Congress’ enactment of the EP Act of 2005, to nonetheless conclude that Congress implicitly delegated BLM authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing lacks common sense.  Congress’ inability or unwillingness to pass a law desired by the executive branch does not default authority to the executive branch to act independently, regardless of whether hydraulic fracturing is good or bad for the environment or the Citizens of the United States.  [The Supreme] Court consistently has given voice to, and has reaffirmed, the central judgment of the Framers of the Constitution that, within our political scheme, the separation of governmental powers into three coordinate Branches is essential to the preservation of liberty.

The quaint notion that the separation of powers “is essential to the preservation of liberty” comports with the understanding of the Framers of the Constitution.  As James Madison pithily stated in The Federalist Number 47, “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”  To avoid such a tyrannical outcome, Madison emphasized, in The Federalist Number 51, the need for structural checks and balances whereby each of the three branches of the federal government could check the others.  It is good to know that at least some recently minted federal judges remain attuned to the separation of powers’ significance.

Economic constitutionalists” also underscore the potential economic case for a robust separation of powers.   For example, Professor Jonathan Macey’s take on economic constitutionalism presents a particularly compelling defense of constitutionally separated powers as an economic welfare prescription that promotes efficiency.  In particular:

Self-interested groups or individuals will lobby to political powers for their goals, possibly leading to injustice or inefficiency. In Macey’s interpretation of Madison, the separation of powers channels lobbyists into the competitive, more efficient market by raising transaction costs so much that private market means are less expensive than appealing to the various separate powers of government.

In short, in addition to promoting respect for the rule of law, attention to the separation of powers advances economic welfare and efficiency, as a normative matter.

Ultimately, of course, the future appointment of judges (like Judge Skavdahl) who are attentive to constitutional constraints requires the election of legislators and Presidents who are faithful to constitutionally-mandated limitations on government power.  The latter, in turn, requires that the general public be made aware of – and support – those foundational constitutional restrictions.  As Madison aptly put it in The Federalist Number 51, “[a] dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government”.  Let us hope that the American public will prove capable of fulfilling its Madisonian responsibility in this regard.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

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