The Trump administration has delayed for two years a pair of rules that would have limited the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations across the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday it would postpone a 2016 rule limiting methane and smog-forming pollutants from oil and gas wells. The decision was made at the request of firms that would be affected by rule as the EPA reconsidered whether to implement the stricter standard. Separately, the Bureau of Land Management entered a notice into the Federal Register on Friday stating it would delay compliance with a rule finalized in November that would limit methane burned off from drilling operations on federal and tribal lands.
Congressional Republicans had sought to nullify the BLM rule last month through a vote under the Congressional Review Act, but that effort failed by a vote of 51 to 49. Backers of the rule, which included three Republicans, noted that it 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 pay royalties only on the oil and gas they capture and contain.
Interior officials did not issue a public statement on the decision to delay the rule. But Katharine MacGregor, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, wrote in the Federal Register notice, “While the BLM believes the Waste Prevention Rule was properly promulgated, the petitioners have raised serious questions concerning the validity of certain provisions of the Rule.”
Oil and gas industry officials, who have challenged both regulations in federal court, praised the moves as providing a needed reprieve. A Wyoming federal district court in January had previously denied a request to stay the new BLM standards.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, said in a statement, “Both rules vastly exceeded federal authority.”
“Even though the compliance dates are postponed,” Sgamma added, “industry will continue to increase methane capture rates as it has for the past three decades.”
Environmental groups said the lengthy delays would hurt both public health and the climate.
Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the EPA said in its own public notice that “the environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action may have a disproportionate effect on children” but described that outcome as acceptable. “Any impacts on children’s health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited,” the agency said.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in the position now where the federal government is not enforcing its basic statutory requirements,” Zalzal said in an interview.
Several senators had asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to either revise or eliminate the rule curbing the burning off of methane, known as “flaring,” from operations on public lands. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called for scrapping it altogether, while Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) had urged Zinke to preserve it but see if he could address some of the concerns of oil and gas operators.
Sarah Uhl, a program director for the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement that the freezing of the Interior Department rule “is a blatantly unlawful attempt to stay a rule that’s already in effect, in order to benefit the oil and gas industry at the expense of public health.”