Today marks the date when oil and gas companies operating on federal lands would have had to begin taking specific steps to reduce methane waste under an Obama-era rule adopted by the Bureau of Land Management in late 2016. However, the new administration late last year suspended the original rule for one year, gifting oil and gas companies license to continue wasteful practices and the Trump administration time to rescind or revise the original rule, as it has pursued furiously since assuming office. WELC and our partners are fighting now in court to overturn this delay and return these federal methane protections to their original timetable.
This extra year is on top of an additional year BLM is providing at the request of oil and gas producers, and over our objections, to allow the industry more time to comply with requirements for companies operating on federal lands to replace polluting equipment, reduce venting and flaring, and find and fix leaks. Methane is the principal component of natural gas and a climate pollutant over 80 times more potent that carbon dioxide.
The original rule serves as a key element in the nation’s fight against climate pollution, joining EPA’s Clean Power Plan and a companion EPA methane rule all designed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In a major advancement, the BLM rule requires companies to clean up existing as well as new operations. Older wells and equipment emit the lion’s share of methane on public lands.
“While industry has won a tactical victory today by dodging their responsibility to stop wasting natural gas owned by the American people, WELC is in the fight to stop climate pollution on public lands for the long haul,” said Thomas Singer, WELC’s senior policy advisor. “WELC has championed this rule from the beginning, fought hard to make it a strong as possible, defended it against challenges from the industry, and will continue to defend it against further attack. The rule is good climate and fiscal policy, and this setback will be temporary. Future administrations will look to this rule as a starting point to combat methane climate pollution.”
Notably, the oil and gas industry failed in three prior attempts to derail the rule. In January 2017, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming denied a motion to enjoin (suspend) the methane rule. In May 2017, the U.S. Senate voted to reject legislation advanced under the Congressional Review Act to eliminate the rule. And, in October 2017, a federal magistrate judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that an attempt by the secretary to stay the rule’s compliance dates without notice or an opportunity for comment violated the law.
After these defeats, the Trump administration must undergo a lengthy rulemaking process including taking public comment and possibly holding public hearings if it intends to continue representing solely oil and gas industry interests by undoing the rule. We expect the rewrite to be yet another gift to the oil and gas industry, watering down or outright repealing most if not all of the original rule’s requirements. WELC will scrutinize any new proposed rule for weaknesses and we expect to challenge the administration’s actions in court.
The BLM waste rule, finalized in 2016, updates antiquated, 30-year old regulations. It requires companies to fix leaky, faulty equipment and reduce natural gas waste on public lands. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, enough natural gas was unnecessarily wasted and leaked between 2009 and 2015 to serve more than 6 million households for a year. The updated waste rule requires companies to perform leak detection and repair with affordable, off-the-shelf technologies, and restricts methane venting (deliberately releasing gas into the atmosphere), and flaring (burning off gas unused at the wellhead). Methane waste not only shortchanges taxpayers, it harms public health and contributes significantly to climate emissions.
Waste: According to Interior, in 2014 alone, 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 that harm communities.
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, if left in place, 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.
Thomas Singer, Western Environmental Law Center, 505-231-1070,