Weeks after President Biden’s remarks at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt and following nearly 18 months of internal agency deliberations, conservation groups expressed their disappointment today in the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) proposed rule to prevent the waste of publicly owned energy resources. The proposed rule requires little from the oil and gas industry beyond increasing royalties on wasted gas. It fails to address routine, intentional venting and flaring as well as other forms of waste. BLM has clear authority and a statutory duty under the Mineral Leasing Act to prevent the waste of publicly owned resources such as gas.
“It is difficult to think of another situation in which geopolitical, economic, environmental, and human health interests so effortlessly harmonize as they do in the case of methane waste,” said Melissa Hornbein, senior attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “The Bureau of Land Management has a unique opportunity with this rule to simultaneously promote U.S. energy independence, protect taxpayer-owned resources, while also addressing the climate crisis and protecting human health. To do so, however, the Bureau must look beyond royalties and reinforce the agency’s clear authority — as outlined in the rule — to take specific and affirmative steps to eliminate the waste of gas caused by venting and flaring. We are encouraged by the preliminary additional safeguards articulated by the rule but those provisions must clearly articulate the Bureau’s duty, in addition to its authority, to tackle waste from venting and flaring.”
Oil companies vent and flare to get rid of the gas that they don’t use onsite or sell. Venting occurs when operators release methane gas—a climate pollutant with 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period—directly into the atmosphere. Flaring occurs when operators burn the gas off instead of putting it to use. Both cause enormous quantities of climate pollution, negatively impact human health, and represent a colossal wastes of resources owned by Tribes and the American public.
In 2019, oil and gas operators vented or flared about 150 billion cubic feet of methane or about $400 million of gas on federal and Tribal lands. That is enough gas to meet the annual needs of 2.1 million households, nearly the needs of New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming combined.
“Incentives are welcome, but failure to require reductions in methane emissions at the well site means that this administration is only giving lip service to the climate crisis,” said Anne Hedges, director of policy with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “BLM must go farther to implement strong action to reduce methane waste and avoid creating what amounts to little more than a pay-to-pollute system. The climate crisis requires immediate and strong action to reduce emissions, especially when there are technologies available today to minimize methane emissions at the well. Absent stronger directives in the rule, BLM risks sacrificing the climate for the short-term profits of an industry that doesn’t give a hoot about the future.”
Venting and flaring also emit other harmful pollutants including ozone-forming volatile organic compounds and hazardous pollutants such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide that significantly harm the health of people in communities near oil and gas development.
States such as New Mexico and Colorado have already demonstrated that strong venting and flaring regulations are possible. BLM must revise its rule in pursuit of similar standards.
Conservation groups successfully intervened in a case to reinstate President Obama’s previous BLM methane waste rule and will continue to hold BLM accountable for the use of Tribal and public resources.
Early 2022 conservation letter to BLM urging a strong rule available here.