Late yesterday, a U.S. District Court judge ruled the Trump administration’s indefinite suspension of key aspects of President Obama’s BLM methane waste rule this summer was “arbitrary and capricious.” The court ordered the Department of Interior to “immediately reinstate the [rule] in its entirety.” The rule requires oil and gas companies to minimize waste and fix leaks from oil and gas development on public land.

The Department of Interior suspended important parts of the rule without public comment, citing an industry lawsuit filed immediately upon the rule’s finalization. The states of New Mexico and California sued the federal government over the suspension, and a broad coalition of Tribal and environmental organizations including WELC joined as intervenors.

“Donald Trump’s Department of Interior is fighting the common-sense, exhaustively vetted BLM methane waste rule like kids railing against bed time,” said Shiloh Hernandez of the Western Environmental Law Center. “The oil and gas industry had extensive input and influence on this rule, and now an administration that clearly serves polluters over people is doing everything it can to turn back the clock. It’s over. We spent three years painstakingly developing this rule, it went through all the right processes, and in the end these companies will make money selling the captured gas.

Background:

This thwarted suspension differs from the rulemaking Interior published in the Federal Register today (news release here). The rulemaking would delay implementation of the rule for one year while the Trump administration attempts to find a legal path to rescind the rule completely or render it meaningless. The administration’s clear goal is to allow continued waste of publicly owned methane by oil and gas companies operating on public land via leaky infrastructure, venting (deliberately releasing gas into the atmosphere), and flaring (burning off gas unused at the wellhead).

For now, the BLM waste rule is still in effect. Finalized in 2016, it 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 supply 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 venting and flaring. Methane waste not only shortchanges taxpayers, it harms public health and contributes significantly to climate emissions.

  • 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.

The American Petroleum Institute and Western Energy Alliance, two oil and gas trade associations, requested this summer’s suspension. Notably, the oil and gas industry failed in two 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 the methane rule. In May 2017, the U.S. Senate voted to reject legislation advanced under the Congressional Review Act to eliminate the rule.