SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Wednesday gave some indication he would block the Trump administration’s suspension of an Obama-era climate law limiting methane emissions from oil and gas companies on federal land.
“The question is, do you need to have facts that would contradict the prior facts?” U.S. District Judge William Orrick asked the administration’s lawyers in a hearing in San Francisco.
The judge was referring to whether a December 2017 decision by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suspending a law requiring oil and gas companies on federal land to curb methane flaring was “arbitrary and capricious” because the agency didn’t provide a new analysis for its decision.
When the law was passed in 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management estimated it would stop nearly half a million tons of methane and other pollutants from escaping into the air annually. But a year later, BLM said it had concerns about the “statutory authority, cost, complexity, feasibility, and other implications” of the law, and that it wanted to avoid forcing companies to make costly equipment upgrades while it considers changing it.
California, New Mexico, and environmental groups like Sierra Club sued to overturn the decision in separate complaints last December, accusing the administration of prioritizing fossil fuel profits over public health. They alleged BLM failed to justify the suspension, and called “speculation” its reliance on yet-to-be-proposed changes that compliance could impose “unnecessary burdens” on oil and gas companies.
Pushing for a preliminary injunction Wednesday, New Mexico Assistant Attorney General Bill Grantham argued delaying compliance until January 2019 will increase rates of cardiovascular disease and risks of cancer, and raise drought and wildfire risk in California and New Mexico.
“Ignoring those emissions has permanent effects,” Grantham said.
Justice Department attorney Clare Boronow denied that BLM failed to support its decision, arguing it would have been illegal to address a future revision of the law when the agency only suspended it. She countered the decision will save oil and gas companies $60,000 each, for a total of $110 million, in potentially unnecessary equipment upgrades during the one-year suspension.
“If there are no facts or no support that the 2016 regulatory impact analysis was incorrect…should I care about that? Orrick asked her.
“The analysis for suspension cannot require the agency to fully verify the truth of all of its concerns,” Boronow replied.
“Even though they were concerns put forward as part of the rationale after a three-year analysis?” Orrick asked, referring to the analysis BLM conducted on the law before passing it under President Obama.
Also Wednesday, Orrick indicated he would deny the administration’s motion to move the lawsuits to Wyoming federal court, where Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Texas and two oil industry groups are challenging the methane law itself. Their motion for a preliminary injunction in that case was denied last month.
Last October, a San Francisco judge rejected a similar attempt by the Trump administration to suspend the law. U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte found BLM couldn’t suspend a law already in force, and that it hadn’t justified its decision. She vacated the suspension and the law went back into effect.
The administration responded to Laporte’s decision by announcing it would suspend the law until 2019 while it considers changes.
BLM’s first attempt to postpone the law came after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in March 2017 directing the agency to suspend, revise or repeal the law, called the Waste Prevention Rule. The U.S. Senate voted 51 to 49 against repeal, with three Republicans joining the majority.
The Interior Department is expected to enter a draft of the Trump administration’s revised law into the Federal Register by the end of this week.