WASHINGTON (AP) – Attempts to reverse an Obama-era rule aimed at curbing methane emissions have cleared a critical hurdle, the Interior Department announced Monday.
The department says the Trump administration’s replacement rule will be entered into the Federal Register this week.
The methane rule has been at the center of multiple court battles and fierce debate in Congress. President Barack Obama finalized the rule, which limits methane emissions from oil and gas developers on federal land, in November 2016.
That same year, the Bureau of Land Management estimated the regulation would prevent as much as 180,000 tons of methane emissions annually or the equivalent of taking nearly 950,000 cars off the road.
The Trump administration’s Interior Department first attempted to formally roll the protection back last fall but failed when U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Laporte ruled the Interior Department was unable to provide a sufficient explanation for its decision to change the regulation.
“The rule’s purpose was to reduce waste of natural gas from venting, flaring and leaks during oil and natural gas production activities on onshore federal and Indian (other than Osage Tribe) leases … and also clarify when produced gas lost through venting, flaring or leaks is subject to royalties, and when oil and gas production may be used royalty free –onsite,” Laporte’s October order stated
As far back as 2014, the judge pointed out, the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, who was tasked with developing the rule, received response from the Government Accountability Office and the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General suggesting then-existing regulations over waste and royalties were “insufficient and outdated.”
Before the Obama-era rule was implemented, the BLM held multiple forums with residents in Colorado, New Mexico and North Dakota to discuss the regulation’s impact. The bureau received 330,000 public comments on the matter.
Once finalized, the states of Wyoming and Montana, and eventually North Dakota and Texas, challenged the rule in a Wyoming federal court.
The states plus an energy industry group, Western Energy Alliance, argued the Obama administration did not have the authority to regulate air pollution and considered the regulation “arbitrary and capricious.”
The challengers lost and the rule finally went into effect in January 2017.
Then in March, President Donald Trump issued an executive order offering instructions to each “executive agency to review all agency actions that … potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law.”
The order prompted newly-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to delay the methane emissions rule through January 2019.
The Interior argued its decision to postpone its implementation was due to the exorbitant costs forced on energy developers and similar industry types.
Time to review the rule would help avoid tens of millions of dollars in compliance costs, the BLM said.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, methane, which is produced both naturally and through manmade efforts, accounts for roughly a quarter of all the manmade global warming the planet is currently experiencing.
Unlike carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, methane doesn’t linger in the atmosphere quite as long but its effect is still quite dangerous. Methane absorb the sun’s heat and has been found to be 84 percent more potent in warming the atmosphere after released than carbon dioxide, the EDF reports.
The Obama-era rule would have forced companies which drill for oil and gas to capture leaked methane, update equipment and design new waste mitigation plans when drilling on federal lands.
According to the Associated Press, an estimated $330 million is lost annual on methane leaks alone, enough to power roughly 5 million homes each year.
The details of the new rule are still unclear. A representative from the Interior Department did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday, but once entered in the register, the public will have 60 days to comment. A final rule will be published later this year.
American Petroleum Institute director Erik Milito welcomed the reversal by the Interior Department Monday.
“We’re supportive of smart regulation that is effectively tailored to [the Bureau of Land Management’s] authority to prevent waste and conserve resources…. We are hopeful the new proposed rule will strengthen our nation’s energy renaissance, our economy and environmental stewardship.”
Militio did not respond to specific questions about what type of efforts API may undertake to combat pollution but referred to a 2016 study by the EPA which he said showed how “effective energy policy can bolster the achievements of industry best practices and innovations along with cost-effective state and federal efforts that are already providing strong environmental leadership.”
The Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory report from 2016, he said, shows a decline of 16.3 percent in methane from 1990 to 2015, at a time when natural gas output increased by 51.9 percent.
“This is in addition to the U.S. leading the world in reducing carbon emissions, which are now near 25-year lows,” he added.
“That is deceptive,” a spokesperson for Earthworks told Courthouse News Wednesday.
“It is widely acknowledged that total global methane has increased since 2006, coincident with the onset of the fracking-enabled shale boom. Before January 2018 there was disagreement in the scientific literature as to whether that increase was due to oil and gas production. A NASA-led study published this January confirmed that oil and gas production is the cause — meaning the oil and gas industry’s claim that their methane pollution is down is baloney,” he said.
“Once again, Trump, Zinke and their oil industry cronies have put corporate profits ahead of the American taxpayer,” said policy director Lauren Pagel. “Under Zinke’s gutted methane rule, communities would lose hundreds of millions of dollars and be exposed to more cancer causing pollutants like benzene.”
Benzene often pollutes ground and air around drilling sites as well.
In January, Earthworks sent out a team of certified thermographers to study pollution pouring off oil and gas sites on federal lands in New Mexico.
Capturing the images on video, the group was dismayed by their findings.
“Seeing is believing,” Pagel said in a statement Monday.
Another organization, Earthjustice, agreed the reversal was a mistake.
“These common sense cost-effective safeguards protect the health of the American people and guard against dangerous climate pollution, all while saving taxpayers money by reducing waste. But once again the Trump administration is putting the interests of corporate polluters above the wishes of Westerners, and the 300,000 people who have gone on the record in favor of these important protections,” said Trip Van Noppenn, the organization’s president.