Judge Revives Obama-Era Emissions Rule for Methane

Oil pumps and natural gas burn off in Watford City, N.D., June 12, 2014.  (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In the latest setback for efforts to roll back environmental rules, a federal judge on Thursday blocked the Trump administration from suspending a rule that cracks down on air pollution from oil and gas wells on public land.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III found the Interior Department failed to justify a one-year suspension of an Obama-era rule that requires oil and gas well operators to install leak detection equipment and pay for “avoidable losses” of natural gas.

“Once again, the courts are serving as a critical backstop against their reckless attempts to unravel key protections for our air, water, and climate,” said Kelly Martin, an environmental campaign director for the Sierra Club. “This ruling is a victory for our communities’ health and the climate, and we will continue to fight to hold this administration accountable and defend this critical clean air standard.”

California and New Mexico sued U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in December 2017, two months after another federal judge invalidated prior efforts to roll back the waste prevention rule.  The lawsuit was consolidated with another legal challenge filed by 17 conservation and tribal citizen groups, led by the Sierra Club.

Approved in November 2016 after three years of development, the waste prevention rule was expected to increase state royalties by $14 million and stop 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.

The rule requires oil and gas well operators to upgrade equipment and start leak detection and repair programs. It also bans the release of methane gas – a practice known as methane flaring – except under special conditions, requires semiannual inspections, and changes the definition of “unavoidable losses,” so states can capture more royalties for avoidable losses of natural gas.

Oil and gas well operators had one year to come into compliance with the new rule by Jan. 17, 2018.

On Oct. 5, 2017, Zinke proposed suspending the waste prevention rule for another year, the same day that another federal judge in San Francisco found the Interior Department had illegally postponed the rule from taking effect.

The Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department, says it enacted the suspension rule to protect small companies from high compliance costs that could run them out of business. But the Bureau previously concluded the rule would cost small companies about $55,200, which it deemed a “small” impact, “even for businesses with less than 500 employees.”

“It appears that BLM is simply ‘casually ignoring’ all of its previous findings and arbitrarily changing course,” Orrick wrote in his 30-page ruling Thursday, citing the 1987 D.C. Circuit ruling, Children’s Television v. FCC.

Orrick concluded that the Interior Department failed to justify suspending the new rule, and that harms caused by one year of air pollution outweigh the minimal cost savings for businesses.

“Plaintiffs have demonstrated that these harms will have substantial detrimental effects on public health, and unlike economic loss, cannot be recovered,” Orrick wrote. “Thus, balancing the equities and considering both sides’ impacts and costs, as well as the public interest, I conclude that the balance weighs in favor of granting the preliminary injunction.”

Orrick found the bureau offered no factual support for its claim that the waste prevention rule would “unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.”

The judge also denied the federal government’s request to transfer the case to the District of Wyoming, where a federal judge is overseeing a separate case challenging the original waste prevention rule issued by the Obama administration in 2016.

Orrick said even though both cases involve the same regulation, they each “raise unique legal questions and require the evaluation of two separate rules promulgated for different reasons.”

In January 2017, a federal judge in Wyoming refused to block the waste prevention rule from taking effect after two oil and gas industry groups, joined by the states of Montana and Wyoming, challenged the regulation in court. That case is still pending in the District of Wyoming.

In a statement issued Friday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra praised Judge Orrick’s decision to issue a preliminary injunction and revive the waste prevention rule.

“Donald Trump threatened the health of our families and our environment with his attempt to suspend a common-sense rule that conserves public resources and protects us from hazardous air pollution,” Becerra said. “Today’s court order blocking that suspension reminds Trump and his administration that they are not above the law.”

A U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment. The Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Friday.

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