States Join in Fight Over Feds’ Gas-Venting Restrictions

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Two energy trade groups and the states of Wyoming and Montana sued over a Department of Interior rule issued this week that restricts the venting, flaring and leaking of natural gas at oil and gas well sites.

The Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America filed their lawsuit Nov. 15 against the Bureau of Land Management and Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, saying that the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule “represents unlawful and unconstitutional” agency action.

“Major portions of the Venting and Flaring Rule seek to regulate air quality from and at oil and gas production facilities on public and Indian lands and on some non-federal lands; BLM lacks the congressionally delegated authority to do so,” the trade groups say in the lawsuit. Their attorney Eric Waeckerlin couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

On Friday, the attorneys general for Montana and Wyoming filed a joint lawsuit claiming the rule is “a blatant attempt by a land management agency to impose air quality regulations on existing oil and gas operations under the guise of waste prevention.”

The state’s top cops couldn’t be reached for comment late Friday.

Both lawsuits claim that it’s up to the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate air quality, not the BLM, which is a division of the Department of Interior. In addition, the energy producers’ lawsuit states that Interior used “flawed science” and places arbitrary limits on flaring, and that it “unlawfully usurps the primary jurisdiction of state and tribal governments.”

The trade groups and the states want temporary restraining orders to keep the rule from being implemented, and also ask the court to invalidate the rule.

Kimberly Brubeck, a spokesperson for the BLM, said they don’t comment on pending litigation. But she noted that the agency used the best available science in formulating the new rule and are working with the EPA to fill in gaps in air quality regulations.

“The EPA recently finalized New Source Performance Standards for oil and gas operations, which limit methane emissions from new and modified oil and gas operations,” Brubeck said. “Unlike this BLM rule, the EPA rules do not apply to existing sources. The BLM and the EPA worked closely to align these rules as much as possible and to minimize any duplication.”

For any sources that might be subject to both sets of requirements, the BLM final rule provides that if the operator is in compliance with EPA requirements, it complies with BLM requirements as well.

The rule, which updates 30-year-old regulations governing flaring, venting and leaking of natural gas, is intended to reduce methane emissions and provide a fair return on public resources for federal taxpayers, tribes and states, according to a BLM statement announcing the rule.

“We are proving that we can cut harmful methane emissions that contribute to climate change, while putting in place standards that make good economic sense for the nation,” Jewell said. “Not only will we save more natural gas to power our nation, but we will modernize decades-old standards to keep pace with industry and to ensure a fair return to the American taxpayers for use of a valuable resource that belongs to all of us.”

Under gas and oil production operations, natural gas is a byproduct that’s often “flared off” as flames and released into the atmosphere. Some producers also vent the gas, and in other cases it’s inadvertently leaked into the air. That can lead to significant emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s estimated to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The rule will be phased in over time. It requires oil and gas producers to use technology and processes to cut flaring in half at oil wells on public and tribal lands, and to periodically inspect their operations for leaks. They also must limit venting from storage tanks and limit gas losses when removing liquids from wells.

The Department of Interior notes that enough natural gas was vented or flared between 2009 and 2015 to serve more than 6 million households for a year.

“According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, that amount of wasted gas means states, tribes and federal taxpayers lose millions of dollars annually in royalty revenue for the federal government and the states that share it.”

More information on the Methane and Waste Reduction Rules is available online here.

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