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Senate unexpectedly rejects bid to repeal a key Obama-era environmental regulation

A video of the roll call vote results. (Video: U.S. Senate)

This story has been updated.

The Senate on Wednesday narrowly blocked a resolution to repeal an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from drilling operations on public lands — with three Republicans joining every Democrat to preserve the rule.

The 51-to-49 vote on a procedural motion marked the first time since Trump’s election that Republicans have failed in their attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn Obama-era rules. Thirteen other resolutions, based on the 1996 law that allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative workdays of their adoption, have succeeded.

Thursday is the deadline for using the Congressional Review Act this way.

The methane emissions rule, issued by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in November, addresses a potent greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change.

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The rule would force oil and gas companies to capture methane that had been previously burned off or “flared” at drilling sites. According to federal estimates, the rule would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere and would boost federal revenue between $3 million and $13 million a year because firms only pay royalties on the oil and gas they capture and contain.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) unexpectedly voted no against a motion to proceed with consideration of the resolution, along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). Two Democrats who had considered backing the rule’s elimination — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — voted against the motion, and sent a letter asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to make it less burdensome.

In a floor speech after the vote, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said “the very first victory” lawmakers have had in beating back a Congressional Review Act bill this year came from a combination of Democratic unity and a few Republicans’ willingness to buck their leadership. “Thank you so much for coming forward and seeing the common-sense nature of this issue,” Udall said, referring to Collins, Graham and McCain.

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Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, hailed the vote as an example of how grass-roots organizing can work. “In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today,” he said.

Republicans and industry officials said they would now switch their focus to getting the Interior Department to rewrite the rule, and Trump officials confirmed Thursday they would seek to either change or pull it back altogether.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said his group “looks forward to working with the Interior Department on a targeted, meaningful solution that will achieve the common goal of ensuring the American taxpayers receive a fair and equitable return in the form of royalties while developing a workable regulation, instead of this one-size-fits-all approach.”

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And Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement that Interior should withdraw the regulation outright. “If left in place, this regulation will only discourage energy production, job creation, and economic opportunity across the West.”

Kate MacGregor, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for land and minerals, said in a statement that as part of President Trump’s energy plan and related executive order, Interior “has reviewed and flagged the Waste Prevention rule as one we will suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation.”

“The vote today in the Senate doesn’t impact the administration’s commitment to spurring investment in responsible energy development and ensuring smart regulatory protections,” she added.

Before this year, Congress had only nullified one rule, a regulation on ergonomics former president Bill Clinton enacted during his final year in office. In less than four months, Republicans have wiped away rules covering everything from limits on the dumping of waste from surface-mining operations to enlarging states’ power to offer retirement accounts to private-sector workers.

But the move to strike a rule requiring companies to limit the practice of flaring, or leaking, methane from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal land had given some Republicans — who control 52 seats in the Senate — pause.

Many Republicans and fossil-fuel producers criticized the regulation after it was finalized last year, and a resolution to repeal it passed quickly in the House of Representatives at the end of January. But despite Trump’s support, the repeal measure had been sitting in the Senate for months. It had to pass by Thursday to be eligible to be signed into law.

Democrats, as well as environmental and public-health groups, ran a months-long campaign to persuade Heitkamp and Manchin not to disclose their position publicly while arguing to centrist Republicans that abolishing the rule would cost taxpayers money as well as harm the environment.

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Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also remained on the fence until Monday, when he announced in a statement that he would vote to overturn the BLM regulation. Two other wavering Republicans, Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Dean Heller (Nev.), ultimately joined Portman in voting to proceed with the bill’s consideration.

“Unfortunately, the previous administration’s methane rule was not a balanced approach,” Portman said. “As written, it would have hurt our economy and cost jobs in Ohio by forcing small independent operators to close existing wells and slowing responsible energy production on federal lands.  There’s a better way.”

He added that he believes the Interior Department should still work to reduce venting and flaring on public lands. Last week, Portman wrote to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, calling for a commitment that the department would continue to work to reduce methane waste if the Obama rule were reversed. On May 4, Zinke responded, affirming that “the Department is committed to reducing methane waste, and under my leadership, we will take important steps to accomplish this goal.”

Environmentalists urged Portman to reconsider. In a statement on Tuesday, Environmental Defense Action Fund Executive Director Fred Krupp said Zinke’s assurances were “unfounded” and argued that the strategies for reducing methane waste outlined in his letter would have little impact.

A coalition of industry groups have argued that they are taking steps to reduce fugitive methane emissions because they recognize capturing them can yield additional profits. The American Petroleum Institute noted that the Environmental Protection Agency data, released in March, shows about an 8 percent drop in methane emissions from petroleum production since 2014, largely because of improved gas venting and flaring techniques.

The legislative window for Congressional Review Act resolutions to be considered ends Thursday, though a handful of conservative analysts believe that agencies’ failure to submit a two-page report on previous rules to Congress could open the door to reconsideration of dozens of much older rules.

Curtis W. Copeland, a regulatory expert who specialized in American government at the Congressional Research Service, said in an email that regardless of how many rules this Congress ultimately overturns, “The CRA can no longer be described as ‘obscure’ or ‘little known.’ It now has to be viewed as a substantive tool of congressional oversight regarding an outgoing President’s rules, and it is likely be used again in the future.”

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