The Trump administration really doesn’t want to impose rules curtailing the venting of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, during oil and gas operations. On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management will officially make its biggest gambit yet to keep the gas pouring into the atmosphere.
Under Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, BLM will suspend implementation of a waste prevention rule that went into effect in January, near the end of former President Obama’s time in office. The BLM is expected to announce a new draft rule in the coming weeks that could revise or rescind the existing regulation—which has already been through hell and back.
In May, Congress attempted to repeal the rule, which aims to prevent wasteful venting, leaking, and flaring of natural gas on federal and tribal lands, via the Congressional Review Act, but it didn’t quite make it through the Senate. Three senators—John McCain (R-AZ), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lindsey O. Graham (R-SC)—unexpectedly voted no against a motion to proceed with consideration of the resolution, sinking the measure 51-49.
Then in June, the Trump administration attempted to unilaterally suspend the rule’s implementation without offering public comment, an effort that was challenged by several states and environmental organizations and struck down by a federal court in October.
Now, after a brief 30-day comment period, the BLM is proposing to push the compliance date all the way back to January 2019 while it works out a new plan.
Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain Regional Director for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Earther it’s “no secret that Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration are seeking this delay to create enough time to repeal the rule outright.”
“This is a prime example of mindless deregulation that will allow the already rigged system of federal oil and gas development to continue unabated at the expense of ordinary Americans who feel the consequences of increased pollution and decreased ability for state and local governments to address their communities’ needs, such as roads and schools,” he said.
The Washington Post reports that “according to federal estimates, the rule would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere” each year. In the first two decades after its release, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. The rule would also “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,” per the Post, something they would be forced to do more of under the rule. The EDF recently estimated that more than $330 million in natural gas is wasted each year on public lands.
The Obama administration set a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2012 emissions levels by 2025. The methane rule was part of a broader climate change mitigation strategy, including the Clean Power Plan, that’s increasingly under threat from the new administration.
Grossman said the methane emissions rule requires operators on federal and tribal lands to check their equipment regularly for leaks and repair leaks promptly. It also requires operators to capture natural gas produced during oil production and limits the amount of gas that can be flared.
Oil and gas companies are vehemently against the rule, asserting that it will prove very costly to their bottom line and that it represents vast government overreach, an argument industry groups have taken to court.
Chase Huntley, Energy & Climate Program Director for the Wilderness Society, told Earther that it’s inexcusable that BLM is suspending this rule without putting a new rule in place.
“It means that the federal government has decided to leave oversight of methane waste and pollution to the states for the indefinite future,” he said. “Unfortunately, the states have not collectively taken strong action to date, and the oil and gas industry has shown that it cannot self-regulate.”
Just a few days ago, the American Petroleum Institute announced a voluntary program to reduce methane emissions from U.S. oil and gas operations. Environmental groups criticized this as “weak” and “too little, too late.”
Called the Environmental Partnership, API’s program includes 26 large natural gas and oil producers. Beginning in January 2018, participating companies will use new technologies to detect leaks, replace equipment and end certain operating practices at troubled drilling sites, and annually report their progress.
Grossman is not convinced.
“API has been at the heart of this rush to deregulate,” he said. “And a voluntary effort, which is far weaker than what is currently on the books, is no substitute for regulations that hold all operators accountable.”
Update: A previous version of this post included statements from an outside source that were not properly attributed. The text has been updated to clarify the source of the language and properly attribute it.