After Congress failed five months ago to repeal an Obama administration measure meant to mitigate the emissions of a potent greenhouse gas, the Interior Department on Wednesday took a step toward suspending the rule.
This week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will issue a proposal to formally delay a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rule that requires oil and gas companies operating on federal and tribal lands to capture methane that would otherwise be vented or burned off.
BLM had already stayed the rule in June, but on Wednesday a federal judge struck down that delay by Interior for violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how agencies write regulations. With its submission to the Federal Register this week, the Interior Department is kicking off the formal rulemaking process needed to permanently rewrite or undo the rule.
Methane, the main component of natural gas underground, is a powerful accelerant of climate change. Through rules issued by the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, President Barack Obama sought to slow methane emissions from natural-gas wells as part of a multipronged effort to meet the U.S. emissions-reduction targets under the Paris climate accord.
But President Trump has announced he will pull the United States out of the Paris agreement, while at the same time rolling back many of the regulatory actions the previous administration took to address climate change.
Environmentalists who support the BLM rule, which addresses new and existing gas wells on public and tribal lands, say fiscal conservatives should take issue scraping the rule as well. That’s because states, tribes and the federal government get royalty payments from oil and gas firms drilling on publicly owned lands. The more methane that is captured, the more money flows into government coffers.
“That just underscores how far outside the mainstream this administration is,” said Matt Watson, associate vice president of the climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund.
In May, the GOP-controlled Senate narrowly blocked a resolution to repeal the BLM methane rule under a little-used law called the Congressional Review Act. The law allows Congress to nullify regulations recently issued by the executive branch with only 50 votes in the Senate, but that effort failed on a 51-to-49 vote. Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) voted against a repeal.
If a regulation is nullified under the CRA, that agency is not allowed to reissue a similar rule — meaning that a future president could not easily undo what Trump undid.
Opponents of the rule knew the Interior Department could act on its own to repeal it — at least until a new president decides otherwise. “I call on Interior Secretary Zinke to withdraw the rule immediately,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said soon after the Senate vote to repeal it failed.
So Interior got to work. After the Trump administration in June delayed the date by which companies needed to comply with the BLM rule, California, New Mexico and environmental groups sued Interior to execute the rule.
Then on Wednesday, shortly after Interior announced it would begin its rulemaking process, a federal judge ordered Interior to immediately begin enforcing the methane restrictions.
“They got a pretty stern rebuke from the judge that their previous attempt at delaying the rule was arbitrary and illegal,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Industry representatives, including the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and their allies in Congress regarded the Obama administration’s rule as duplicative of similar state regulations. “We welcome BLM’s efforts to get this right and encourage the agency to develop an achievable rule in the months ahead that serves to prevent waste and conserve resources while encouraging energy production on federal lands,” API’s Erik Milito said in a statement on Wednesday.
Still, not all natural gas extractors in the United States take issue with compliance measures. Last week, XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, said it would phase out “high-bleed” valves over the next three years as part of a program to reduce methane emissions. “Basically what the administration is doing is taking its marching orders from the worst of the oil and gas industry,” Watson said.
The Interior Department did not reply to a request for comment.