Methane Ruling Faces Uphill Battle at Interior Dep’t

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Finding the Trump administration illegally rolled back an emissions-reducing rule for oil and gas wells on public land, a federal judge revived the regulation Wednesday, but the victory could prove short-lived for environmentalists because plans are already under way to scrap the new requirements.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte found the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Department of the Interior, illegally postponed a methane flaring rule five months after it took effect on Jan. 17, and failed to justify the delay.

“New presidential administrations are entitled to change policy positions, but to meet the requirements of the APA [Administrative Procedure Act] they must give reasoned explanations for those changes and ‘address [the] prior factual findings’ underpinning a prior regulatory regime,” Laporte wrote, citing Organized Village of Kake v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 2015 Ninth Circuit en banc ruling.

The waste prevention rule would have increased state royalties by $14 million and stopped 41 billion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly half a million tons of methane and other pollutants from escaping into the air each year, according to Interior Department estimates.

Just before Laporte issued her ruling Wednesday, the government announced it would publish a new, proposed rule on Thursday to push back the methane regulation another year, until January 2019, while it considers revising or rescinding the new requirements.

“This latest delay of the BLM methane rule simply reaffirms what we’ve known all along: When the oil and gas industry says, ‘Jump,’ the Trump administration asks, ‘How high?’” EarthJustice vice president of climate and energy litigation Abigail Dillen said in a statement Wednesday.

“Only this administration could look at oil and gas sites spewing toxic pollution and methane and conclude that the solution is to pollute more, not less.”

California, New Mexico, and a coalition of conservation and tribal groups filed separate lawsuits over the BLM’s postponement of the methane rule in July. EarthJustice represents the Sierra Club and 16 other conservation groups in the lawsuit.

The BLM pushed back the regulation’s January 2018 compliance dates on June 15 without notice or opportunity for public comment, citing pending litigation and “significant costs” for oil and gas companies. But a previous impact study found the benefits outweighed the costs. Laporte found the BLM failed to engage in any new analysis when it delayed the rule and focused solely on the rule’s costs without considering the benefits.

Unlike the BLM’s previous action to postpone the rule, the newly proposed postponement will allow for a 30-day public comment period and follow other steps required to make it stand up to legal scrutiny.

Laporte rejected arguments that reviving the rule would cause chaos for oil and gas companies that relied on the postponement and abandoned plans to comply with the new requirements by Jan. 17, 2018.

The judge said the industry was “well aware” that the bureau’s postponement notice was challenged in court a mere 20 days after it was issued, because two trade associations intervened in the case.

Failing to reinstate the rule “could be viewed as a free pass for agencies to exceed their statutory authority and ignore their legal obligations under APA, making a mockery of the statute,” Laporte concluded.

The rule would require oil and gas well operators on federal land to upgrade equipment, start leak detection and repair programs, and submit to semiannual inspections. It also prohibits the release of methane gas except under special conditions, and changes the definition of “unavoidable losses” so states can earn more in annual royalties for avoidable losses of natural gas.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra applauded the ruling in a statement Wednesday and praised the rule’s benefits to public health and the environment.

“As a result of this rule’s implementation, oil and gas operators on federal and Indian lands will be compelled to prevent the waste of natural gas,” Becerra said. “Natural gas emissions threaten the health of nearby residents and contribute to climate change.”

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and Department of the Interior did not respond to emails seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

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