A federal judge for the US District Court for the District of Wyoming [official website] on Friday struck down a set of administrative rules advanced by the Obama administration last year that placed stricter limits on environmental impact requirements of oil and gas drilling operations. Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled that administrative memos restricting categorical exemptions [US DOT backgrounder] to environmental impact restrictions under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 [text, PDF] represented an undue burden on energy companies by delaying drilling operations and adding to their cost. The Western Energy Alliance (WEA) [advocacy website] filed suit [complaint, PDF] against the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) [official website], the National Forest Service (NFS) [official website] and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar [official biography] last October. The government argued unsuccessfully that the harms complained of were merely speculative, and Judge Freudenthal agreed with WEA's arguments that the rules were promulgated in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act [materials] and inconsistent with the plain language mandate of the 2005 Act.
The BLM issued an administrative memorandum [text] in March 2010 restricting the scope of those exceptions, allowing exceptions under § 390 of the 2005 Act only where a site or operation is within close physical proximity to a previous one, where a site is subject to a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) [materials]-sanctioned land plan, and where the operator completes additional reporting requirements. The NFS followed suit with its own memo [text, PDF] to the same effect in June. The ruling removes the 2010 restrictions, reinstating the Bush administration-era regime of expedited oil and gas drilling provisions under which provides categorical exceptions for all oil and gas drilling operations on federal land where a minimal degree of environmental disturbance is expected or where wells are subsequently tapped after an impact survey was performed at the first drilling.