These days it seems there is constant release of new information about hydraulic fracturing. Recent news from a federal court in New York, however, is a departure from this trend. A September 24th ruling in State of New York v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rejected an attempt to require officials at the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to gather and release potentially valuable new information on the anticipated effects of hydraulic fracturing on the Delaware River Basin.
The Delaware River Basin is a coveted landscape that provides drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia, among other locales. Because the water resources of the Basin are important to multiple states and communities, they are cooperatively governed by the DRBC.
Underlying much of the Delaware River Basin is the Marcellus Shale, a rich source of natural gas that has only recently become available and economic to exploit. Recognizing the potential environmental, economic and cultural impacts of significant new shale gas development, in 2010, DRBC began the process of developing regulations regarding natural gas extraction within the Basin. DRBC also determined that it would not permit any gas extraction in the Basin until such time as it adopts final regulations. Over the past two years DRBC has drafted and proposed – but not yet voted to adopt – new regulations that would lift the current ban on natural gas extraction in the Basin and permit regulated drilling.
In this interim period, the State of New York and a number of NGOs sued DRBC (and a series of federal partners) claiming that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires DRBC to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing the potential impacts of its proposed gas drilling regulations.
Generally speaking, NEPA requires federal agencies to prepare an EIS whenever they are undertaking a project that will have significant environmental impacts. In the EIS, the federal agency considers the environmental implications of its project and evaluates possible alternatives. One important benefit of the EIS is that it is a single, comprehensive source for an abundance of data and information on the environmental impacts of a proposed federal project or program.
Unfortunately, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled on September 24th that New York State and the other plaintiffs cannot continue a lawsuit that might have forced DRBC to complete an EIS at this stage. This decision not only delays DRBC’s potential obligation to perform environmental review, but ratifies DRBC’s poor planning, which so far has proceeded with development of regulations without the benefit of an environmental review.
The primary question that the court addressed was whether New York State and the other plaintiffs would suffer injury if DRBC did not complete an EIS. In similar situations, other courts ruled that failure to complete an EIS could lead to “uninformed decisionmaking,” which amounts to an injury, and, because of this injury, past lawsuits were allowed to move forward. However, the court here looked critically at the past cases and found that “in each case, the government had acted in the form of a final order, regulation, plan, denial of a request, or statute.” In other words, the court determined that failure to complete an EIS could only injure a plaintiff when it is attached “to an actual agency action,” which, according to the court, has not yet occurred in the DRBC case.
This reasoning appears strained. NEPA is designed to inform decisionmaking, and most federal agencies, at a minimum, recommend that the required environmental review happen at an early stage of project development. Here, the court found that a review is not required before an “actual agency action.” Yet there is no reason that issuance of draft regulations could not be considered sufficiently “actual.” Issuance of proposed regulations should suffice because it is at this point that potentially injured parties will become fully aware of the existence and scope of the impending injury. In fact, at least one other court has specifically agreed that proposed action is enough to present a real threat of uninformed decisionmaking.
The court here sets up a straw man, saying that it “believes that the reasoning [of other courts, allowing plaintiffs to sue for failure to complete an EIS] cannot be extended indefinitely backward, to embrace internal agency deliberations, drafts or legal analysis . . .” But the official public issuance of proposed regulations is certainly more substantial than internal drafts, deliberations or legal analysis.
In reality, the threat of uninformed decisionmaking arises as soon as decisionmakers begin to consider regulations without the benefit of an EIS. As the court noted, it is not practical to require an EIS at very early stages, in part because there is not any concrete government action associated with early deliberations. Conversely, though, when an agency officially issues proposed regulations without an EIS, it is clear that the agency developed these regulations without complete information, and this is when the actionable threat emerges.
Aside from the legal arguments, the real trouble here is that the basis for this lawsuit was not merely a battle of pro- and anti-fracking factions. Rather, it was an effort to gather information, to put as much transparent analysis as possible into the public sphere, and to improve decisionmaking. As it stands, the fracking debate is heated but largely under-informed. A great many questions about fracking’s air quality, climate, community, water use, wastewater, groundwater, economic and electricity generation impacts are still unanswered. Had this lawsuit turned out differently, it could have led to important new insights.
Thanks to Bruce Ho, Research Scholar in Law, Coca-Cola World Fund Faculty Fellow, and Clinical Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School for his contributions to this post.
 State of New York v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, 11-CV-2599 (Sept. 24, 2012).
 Sierra Club v. U.S. Dep’t of Energy, 287 F.3d 1256, 1265 (10th Cir. 2002).
 See, e.g., Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 446 F.3d 808 (8th Cir. 2006).