Late yesterday, the Bureau of Land Management issued a proposed rule rolling back core public safeguards to reduce methane waste on public lands by the oil and gas industry. The proposed revision capitulates to the worst oil and gas industry operators, undoing all meaningful provisions to reduce the waste of publicly owned resources by the oil and gas industry. The 2017 rule’s implementation was expected to increase industry profits and taxpayer royalties through improved efficiency while reducing public health impacts in communities near oil and gas drilling fields. Low-cost methane waste technology is readily available and represents a growing industry creating new jobs. To justify the rollback, BLM fudged the numbers to show net costs when last year it found the rule would provide annual benefits of up to $200 million.
The changes BLM has proposed to the rule will by its own admission significantly reduce natural gas production, valued at up to $824 million, because so much waste will again be allowed, and reduce federal royalties by up to $32.7 million. The proposal will also return methane waste controls to a decades-old regime (called NTL-4a) that BLM admits is ineffective and which led to the development of the 2017 rule. And in New Mexico, the rollback will let existing operations off the hook for cleaning up their emissions and leave the state holding the bag for cleaning up the methane “hot spot” in the San Juan Basin.
“Given that 75 percent of Westerners support methane safeguards on our public lands and that opponents of the rule lost a crucial vote in Congress last year to keep the BLM from regulating methane waste in the future, we fully expect the original rule to be re-instated and even strengthened by a future administration that recognizes the climate dangers of methane pollution from the oil and gas industry,” said Thomas Singer, senior policy advisor for the Western Environmental Law Center. “And we are dismayed to see Rep. Pearce supporting this rollback when satellite images of the New Mexico Permian clearly show huge amounts of flaring across the region and when the super-majors investing heavily in the area are expressing support for the very measures to reduce methane waste that would be rolled back by the new proposed rule.”
BLM finalized the methane rule in 2017 to prevent waste of publicly owned natural gas due to careless industry practices. The proposed revisions would undo requirements for operators to adopt readily available measures already being used by a few leading oil and gas producers, rewarding the most wasteful oil and gas producers operating on our public lands. ExxonMobil has publicly expressed support for government methane waste regulations.
Wasting methane makes no sense, yet oil and gas companies routinely and deliberately vent methane into the atmosphere, burn it as a waste product from oil drilling, and allow it to leak from poorly maintained equipment. About $330 million worth of gas is wasted every year, $100 million of that in New Mexico. Wasted gas would rob taxpayers of $800 million in royalties over the next decade, cause unacceptable damage to public health, and exacerbate climate change.
Notably, the oil and gas industry failed in three prior attempts to undo the rule. In October 2017, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected an unlawful effort by the administration to delay implementation of the rule. In May 2017, the U.S. Senate voted to reject legislation advanced under the Congressional Review Act to eliminate the rule. And in January 2017, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming denied a motion from oil and gas industry trade associations to enjoin the methane rule.
The proposal’s publication in the federal register this week will start a short 60-day comment period. However, the administration has clearly already made its decision to gut the rule, with the comment period serving as a legally mandated procedural exercise rather than a meaningful public engagement opportunity.
According to 2018 Colorado College State of the Rockies polling, an overwhelming majority, 75 percent of Westerners, support regulations “to require oil and gas producers who operate on national public lands to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas into the air.”
The BLM methane waste rule was developed and adopted to address:
- Waste:According to Interior, in 2014, oil and gas companies wasted more than 4 percent of the natural gas they produced on federal lands, sufficient gas to supply nearly 1.5 million households with gas for a year.
- Public health:Methane released by the oil and gas industry comes packaged with other toxic pollutants— benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene — and smog-forming volatile organic compounds.
- Climate:Methane is a greenhouse gas 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide during the time it remains in the atmosphere.
- Taxpayers:The BLM methane waste rule would earn taxpayers about $800 million in royalties on publicly owned methane resources over the next decade. Since 1980, lax provisions have resulted in BLM rubber-stamping industry requests to vent and flare natural gas and to avoid paying royalties. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates lost royalties at nearly $23 million annually under the antiquated regime.