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House Republicans just voted to repeal another environmental rule

Oil pumpjacks work behind a natural gas flare Dec. 17, 2014, near Watford City, N.D. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

This week, Republicans in Congress began in earnest an effort to begin rolling back regulations passed during the Obama administration. And now another Obama-era environmental rule may soon be overturned.

The House of Representatives passed a resolution Friday that would repeal a regulation, finalized by the Interior Department last November, aimed at curbing “fugitive” methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations on public lands. The resolution will next go to the Republican-majority Senate for a vote.

Congress and Trump have begun reversing multiple Obama rules on the environment

Fugitive emissions refer to gas that’s lost either through accidental leaks or through venting and flaring, the intentional process of burning off gas as it rises up from a well.

These emissions have been cited by environmentalists as a contributor to climate change — methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas. And at the time the rule was passed, the Interior Department also noted that fugitive emissions can be considered a form of waste that costs taxpayers a fair return on oil and gas operations. The new rule requires more stringent overseeing of these emissions, including a reduction in flaring and an increase in inspections for leaks.  

But like other Obama administration environmental regulations, the rule was criticized by fossil fuel industry representatives, who pushed back against what they described as unnecessary and redundant restrictions on energy development. After the November election, policy experts pegged the rule as a likely early candidate for repeal under the new Republican-controlled Congress. 

Friday’s resolution is one of a series passed this week under a law known as the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress a limited time period to overturn federal regulations after they have been finalized, contingent on the president’s signature. A number of late-breaking Obama rules are eligible for repeal under the Congressional Review Act, and President Trump has signaled his intention to sign several resolutions that were introduced this week, including the measure on the methane rule.

The oil and gas industry has praised the move to repeal the methane rule.

“BLM’s [the Bureau of Land Management’s] rule is technically flawed and redundant, and it could impede the technological innovations that have led to increased domestic use of cleaner-burning natural gas — the main reason U.S. energy-related carbon emissions have fallen to levels not seen since the early 1990s,” Jack Gerard, American Petroleum Institute president and chief executive, said in a statement Friday. “We applaud the efforts to strengthen and rationalize U.S. energy policies and stand ready to work with Congress and the new administration on a smarter, science-based regulatory approach to continue meeting America’s energy needs and expanding U.S. global energy and environmental leadership.”  

But environmental groups have resisted the repeal, citing both economic and environmental concerns.

“The rollback gives companies permission to waste $330 million dollars of public assets a year, and generate huge amounts of avoidable pollution that contaminates our air and has a devastating effect on public health,” said Elizabeth Thompson, president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund, in a statement. “We call on the U.S. Senate to protect the interests of the American people, and not cast a vote for business as usual for the oil and gas industry.”

In a statement Friday, energy and climate campaign manager Josh Mantell of the Wilderness Society described the resolution as a win for the oil and gas industry but a “loss for the American people.”

“This much-needed rule will make sure that American resources are used for public good and not wasted by the oil and gas industry,” he said. “If left alone to do its job, it will return over $800 million in royalties to American taxpayers over the next decade. By voting to repeal the wasted gas rule today, the House also signed away our ability to ever address the easily fixed waste of natural gas. This decision goes against the interests of the American people, their health and their wallets.”