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San Francisco Judge Rejects Calls to Move Fracking Lawsuits to Wyoming

A federal district court judge in San Francisco has denied motions by the Trump administration and the oil and gas industry to move a pair of lawsuits concerning an Obama-era rule governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on public and tribal lands to more friendly territory -- a district court in Wyoming.

In U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. on Tuesday denied motions by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to move the cases to U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming.

At issue is a decision by BLM, under orders by Trump, to rescind the fracking rule, issued by BLM in 2015. California and a coalition of environmental groups filed separate lawsuits in January challenging the rescission.

Last March, BLM and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and Western Energy Alliance (WEA) filed motions to transfer the cases to Wyoming, arguing that the state would be a more appropriate venue.

However, Gilliam said three legal actions -- a district court judge's ruling in June 2016 that BLM did not have the authority to regulate fracking; a decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to dismiss litigation over the rule last September; and a decision by the same panel to deny rehearing arguments two months later -- meant that there was no problem with the cases moving forward in San Francisco.

"Given the posture of the Wyoming action, the court is not convinced that there is any risk of inconsistent judgments," Gilliam wrote. "The Tenth Circuit recently vacated the court's holding in the Wyoming action. In doing so, the Tenth Circuit found that the plaintiffs' appeals were prudentially unripe as a result of BLM's rescission of the fracking rule."

Gilliam said since the Tenth Circuit in June issued a corresponding mandate to enforce its judgment, "there is no standing decision of the Wyoming district court for this court to contravene."

The judge also took note of separate motions by BLM and North Dakota and Texas to transfer a pair of lawsuits over the Obama-era rule governing associated natural gas flaring and venting on public and tribal lands -- aka the venting and flaring rule -- from Northern California to Wyoming for similar reasons.

While conceding there was "substantive overlap" between challenges to the fracking rule and the venting and flaring rule, Gilliam said "the issue before this court -- the legality of BLM's rescission of the fracking rule -- was not presented to or reached by the court in the Wyoming action. The question in the Wyoming action, whether BLM had statutory authority to enact the fracking rule, has not been presented to this court."

WEA President Kathleen Sgamma told NGI's Shale Daily that Tuesday's ruling was not unexpected. "Rare is the judge who let's go of a case," she said.

Gilliam granted motions by API, IPAA and WEA to intervene in the case. He also denied as moot a motion filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in April to strike the State of Wyoming's response to BLM's motion to move the cases to Wyoming.

The lead case over the fracking rule, which included Tuesday's ruling, is State of California v. BLM, No. 4:18-cv-521. The second case is Sierra Club et al v. Ryan Zinke et al, No. 4:18-cv-00524.

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