Workers on drilling platform (© AP Images)
A court ruling has blocked a bid to tighten U.S. rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands. (© AP Images)

No one can argue with protecting the environment, right? So why did a federal judge block the Obama administration’s new limits on fracking — drilling for oil and gas by injecting a high-pressure water mixture into rock to release the fuel inside?

The answer has to do with the checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government established by the U.S. Constitution. Basically, the legislature (Congress) passes laws, the executive (the president and the agencies that report to him) approves and enforces the laws, and the judiciary adjudicates disputes about what the laws mean.

Sometimes Congress passes a law that delegates some authority to the executive branch. For example, in the Clean Air Act, Congress instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to establish emission standards to reduce air pollution. EPA then issues rules, perhaps setting a maximum parts per million of a given substance that may be emitted.

But agencies can only issue rules within the power that’s been delegated to them. In the fracking case, a federal judge ruled that Congress had not granted the Department of the Interior any authority to regulate fracking.

The issue, said the court, wasn’t whether fracking “is good or bad for the environment or the citizens of the United States.” The problem instead was that the department’s rule “is in excess of its statutory authority.”

What comes next?

The Obama administration can appeal the decision to a higher court, and possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. And Congress can pass a law that gives Interior more authority to regulate fracking. And, as always, the American people can press their elected officials to change the law.