WASHINGTON (CN) - The D.C. Circuit on Monday struck down the EPA's decision to pause an Obama-era rule regulating methane emissions from oil and natural gas wells.
The rule went into effect in August 2016 and set new standards for how oil and natural gas wells prevent leaks of methane and other pollutants. Oil and gas companies had until June 3 of this year to finish an initial survey to find potential methane leaks, according to the D.C. Circuit's per curiam opinion.
But before that deadline came, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a 90-day pause on the methane rule, allowing time for the agency to reconsider some of its requirements. Pruitt later proposed to extend the stay to two full years.
Six environmental groups stepped in to challenge the stay, arguing that the points the EPA was planning to reconsider had already been debated during the public comment period before the methane rule went into effect. As a result, the EPA did not have authority to put in place the stay, the groups argued.
The EPA, joined by several oil and gas groups who signed onto the suit as intervenors, argued the stay was reasonable because the agency has "broad discretion" to look over its own rules, according to the opinion.
In a 2-1 decision on Monday, the D.C. Circuit sided with the environmental groups, saying the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA authority to put a stay in place while reconsidering a rule. The only part of the law that would give the agency that authority says a stay is appropriate only when the EPA is required to reconsider a rule, not simply every time it decides to do so, according to the ruling.
"The administrative record thus makes clear that industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on all four issues on which EPA granted reconsideration, and indeed, that in several instances the agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule," D.C. Circuit Judges David Tatel and Robert Wilkins wrote in the per curiam opinion. "Because it was thus not 'impracticable' for industry groups to have raised such objections during the notice and comment period, CAA section 307(d)(7)(B) did not require reconsideration and did not authorize the stay."
D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Brown dissented from the majority opinion, arguing that the court did not even have authority to hear the case because the EPA's decision to impose the stay was not a final agency decision.
"The court presumes a certain outcome of EPA's reconsideration, one that a stay alone gives us no basis to presume," Brown wrote. "A stay is of course, 'final' as to whether one must comply with the rule during reconsideration - just as a trial court's evidentiary determination is 'final' until the time for appeal ripens."
In a statement, an EPA spokesperson said the agency is "reviewing the opinion and examining our options."
Environmental groups meanwhile celebrated the decision as a blow to the Trump administration's rollback of environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration.
"This ruling declares EPA's action illegal - and slams the brakes on [the] Trump administration's brazen efforts to put the interests of corporate polluters ahead of protecting the public and the environment," David Doniger, director of the National Resources Defense Council's climate and clean air program, said in a statement. "The ruling recognizes the EPA lacks the authority to simply scrap these critical protections. And it shows the courts are going to enforce the rule of law on health and the environment. The Trump administration's war on the environment and our health has hit a brick wall."
The NRDC was one of the six groups that challenged the stay, joining the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, the Clean Air Council and the Sierra Club.
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