States Sue Over Rolled Back Methane Flaring Rule

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California and New Mexico on Tuesday sued to block the Trump administration from rolling back an Obama-era rule that would curb air pollution from oil and gas wells on public land.

The states filed their federal lawsuit mere hours after the U.S. Department of Interior finalized a rule to repeal the regulation. The rule called for banning the release of methane gas from wells – a practice known as methane flaring.

It also required oil and gas well operators to upgrade equipment, start leak detection and repair programs and pay for “avoidable losses” of natural gas.

“With this attempt to axe the Waste Prevention Rule, the Trump administration risks the air our children breathe and at taxpayers’ expense,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday.

In announcing the regulatory rollback, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt said the department’s Bureau of Land Management found many parts of the rule were “unnecessarily burdensome on the private sector.”

“The Trump Administration is committed to innovative regulatory improvement and environmental stewardship, while appropriately respecting the clear and distinct authorities of the states, tribes, as well as the direction we receive from Congress,” Bernhardt said in a statement.

In this June 12, 2014 file photo, oil pumps and natural gas burn off in Watford City, N.D. (AP PHOTO/CHARLES REX ARBOGAST)

Approved in November 2016 after three years of development, the waste prevention rule was expected to increase state and federal royalties by $14 million and stop 41 billion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly half a million ton of methane and other pollutants from escaping into the air each year, according to Interior Department estimates.

California and New Mexico each earned about $58 million and $988 million in royalties, respectively, for mineral extraction on federal land in their states in 2017, according to their complaint.

The Trump administration unveiled its proposal to repeal the waste prevention rule in February 2018, generating more than 600,000 comments on the proposal.

In explaining its decision to rescind the rule, the Interior Department said it found compliance costs for businesses were higher than previously estimated and that many of the requirements would overlap with existing state, tribal and federal regulations.

Departing from its previous findings in 2016, the department concluded that the costs outweigh the rule’s benefits.

Environmental groups were quick to condemn the decision on Tuesday.

“This commonsense rule is needed to curb smog-forming, cancer-causing, and climate-warming air pollution leaking from oil and gas facilities across the country,” said David Doniger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “We will continue to fight in court to ensure people and the planet come before powerful polluters.”

“Today’s announcement is just a continuation of this administration’s ongoing assault on clean air, public lands, our health, and our climate,” said Lena Moffitt, of Sierra Club, in a statement.

California and New Mexico previously won an injunction to stop Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from delaying and suspending the waste prevention rule in February. In April, a federal judge in Wyoming blocked the implementation of some parts of the rule. An appeal of that ruling is still pending in the Tenth Circuit.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Interior did not immediately return emails seeking comment after business hours on Tuesday.

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