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Photo credit: Bruce Gordon/Ecoflight

New West Daily Roundup for June 23, 2016

Today in New West news: how the fracking ruling could affect future rulings over the BLM’s authority, painting in Missoula, and Denver office rent is sky high.

Yesterday, we reported that U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl had struck down a key proposal from the Obama Administration and the Interior Department regarding the regulation of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. Proponents hailed the ruling as a check on the Bureau of Land Management, which they say has overstepped its bounds with regards to land management. Opponents of the ruling, on the other hand, say the regulation is needed to safeguard environmental health. An appeal is currently in the works.

According to the Casper Star Tribune, however, the battle may have only just started on other land management issues:

“What the judge has done here is open another front in the Sagebrush Rebellion,” said Fred Cheever, co-director of the Environmental Law and Natural Resources Program at the University of Denver’s Strum College of Law. “What he is really doing is questioning the federal government’s ownership of land in the American West.”

The decision represents a win for Wyoming and three other states, which had argued the Interior Department had overstepped the bounds of its legal authority.

Congress did not give BLM the power to regulate fracking, they said. Instead, it vested that authority with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, though even in that instance the EPA’s oversight was limited to a rare type of fracking.

Skavdahl agreed, writing in a 27-page decision, “The BLM has attempted an end-run around the 2005 EP Act; however, regulation of an activity must be by Congressional authority, not administrative fiat.”

The ruling has particular importance in Wyoming. While the majority of wells fracked in the United States are located on state and private land, roughly half the state’s production comes from federal land.

State officials had long maintained that the federal rules were duplicative. Wyoming became the first state to regulate fracking in 2010, and state officials argued their federal counterparts were merely creating unnecessary confusion for companies working on public land.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead applauded the decision, saying it shored up state authority with regards to fracking. Interior officials responded, in part, by saying federal regulation was lagging, and that the new fracking rule would have modernized BLM management. Although the Interior did not comment on a possible appeal, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is reportedly weighing a challenge previously filed against Skavdahl when he delayed implementation of the new fracking rule. In all likelihood, the challenge to Skavdahl’s latest ruling would be consolidated with his previous injunction.

According to the Tribune, however, Skavdahl’s fracking ruling could have implications for other aspects of BLM management, especially since the agency is currently finalizing new rules on flaring and venting natural gas at oil wells. Industry reps have hinted at challenging the new rules, and the Skavdahl ruling will only embolden them. From the Tribune:

“This ruling foretells an uphill battle for the BLM in its proposed methane venting and flaring rules, which are similarly aimed at expanding BLM’s control over environmental factors typically controlled by Congress or the EPA,” said Jeffrey Reeser, an industry lawyer and partner at the law firm Sherman & Howard.

Environmentalists said the ruling would have sweeping consequences. The Federal Land Management Policy Act, which has long governed the BLM, gives the bureau broad powers to regulate land use on the properties it manages, said Mark Squillace, a professor of environmental law at the University of Colorado. More specifically, the law directs the BLM to prevent degradation to the land, he said.

“I don’t understand how the judge could reach the conclusion,” said Squillace, who once taught Skavdahl and is now a part of a group of law professors seeking to overturn the judge’s ruling.

Over in Montana, a Missoula mother and daughter team are looking to provide professional and amateur artists both an outlet and a hub for their creativity. According to the Missoulian, Cathy Lower (along with daughter Jennifer) opened Painting with a Twist last year as a way to get people painting and to get painters paid for their work. Previously known as Corks N Canvas, Painting with a Twist is a franchise originally started in Mandeville, Louisianna. Currently, there are 292 Painting with a Twist locations across the U.S., including the one in Missoula. From the Missoulian:

The Missoula location employs five part-time local artists, and they teach classes every day of the week. The artist comes in with a pre-painted canvas first to show the class beforehand, then works through the techniques and steps with the students. There are classes for kids and adults, but the evenings are for adults only.

“People want to come in and have a nice evening with a date or their friends or their family,” Cathy Lower said. “People come in here, they’re not on their cellphones, they’re talking to their friends. They’re relaxing. They’re doing something totally out of the ordinary, and music’s going.”

She said people don’t need to feel intimidated about coming by themselves if they just feel like learning to paint for a night. Everyone keeps their own painting.

They paint everything from portraits of pets to scenic pictures of canola fields near Bigfork. They’ve welcomed bachelorette parties, bridal showers, graduation parties and corporate team-building events. In the evenings, folks over 21 are allowed to bring in their own beer or wine, but the Lowers enforce a strict ID policy and don’t tolerate drunkenness.

They also have “Painting with a Purpose” nights where local nonprofit organizations can recruit people who support their cause, and the company donates half the proceeds.

“I still have to pay my artists and pay for supplies,” Lower said. “But the last one we did sold out.”

A two-hour session costs $35 including all paint and supplies.

Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Business Journal, office rent is through the roof in Denver’s skyline. Indeed, the average price is a whopping $40.06 per square foot, up almost 10 percent from the first quarter of 2015. In ultra-premium towers, the average rent is $42.83 per square foot. While the rise is remarkable, the Journal says rents may level out soon:

“New construction and sublease space are providing relief for tenants in a once tight market. Rents in the skyline have begun to moderate. We expect annualized skyline rent growth this year to remain flat,” said Mandy Seyfried, JLL senior research analyst, in a statement.

And with the plunge in the Denver energy economy, there was negative absorption of office space in the first quarter of 2016.

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