Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Interior Finalizes Methane Rule, Gets Hit with Industry Lawsuit

An oil and gas rig on public land in northwestern New Mexico.  The administration is moving to curb methane waste from such operations.  (Photo Credit: Ellen M. Gilmer)  Click to Enlarge.
The Interior Department finalized a rule Tuesday designed to slash the volume of natural gas that's vented and flared each year into the atmosphere from roughly 100,000 wells on federal and tribal lands.

The Methane and Waste Prevention Rule's goal is twofold:  Reduce releases of methane, a greenhouse gas that's more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and ensure that taxpayers get a fair return on the use of federal lands by capturing flared gas that is not subjected to royalty payments.

Interior says the new rule — which replaces 30-year-old regulations — is projected to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by as much as 35 percent.

The rule is fiercely opposed by the oil and gas industry and congressional Republicans. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's announcement of the final rule Tuesday morning was quickly followed by an industry lawsuit.

The Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, calling the regulation "a vast overreach" of Interior's regulatory authority.

Interior's Bureau of Land Management, which worked on the rule for five years, says reducing the flaring, venting and leaking of methane from federally managed oil and gas wells would save society up to $188 million annually by allowing more natural gas to be sold and preventing the escape of methane and other pollutants.

"This rule to prevent waste of our nation's natural gas supplies is good government, plain and simple," Jewell said in a statement.

"We are proving that we can cut harmful methane emissions that contribute to climate change, while putting in place standards that make good economic sense for the nation," she added. "Not only will we save more natural gas to power our nation, but we will modernize decades-old standards to keep pace with industry and to ensure a fair return to the American taxpayers for use of a valuable resource that belongs to all of us."

But beyond the legal challenge, the rule's future is very much in doubt after President-elect Donald Trump's election last week.  The Republican has made it clear that his administration will reduce regulation and expand oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands.

Trump will almost certainly attempt to roll back the rule.  But outright overturning BLM's final methane regulation would require going through the entire rule making process again and is no simple task, said Fred Cheever, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Under the Administrative Procedure Act, an incoming administration needs to provide reasons or evidence that circumstances have changed since the rule was created or show that the reasoning behind the rule was otherwise flawed.

"If I were tasked by a new Trump secretary of the Interior to come up with a justification for pulling back what is clearly a protective action, I would be hard-pressed," Cheever said.

Trump may also work with members of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to strip funding for the rule, observers say.

And Trump might work to clear a backlog of right-of-way applications to build pipelines and other infrastructure that the industry says would allow drilling operations to capture excess gas and pipe it to market instead of venting it into the air.

Read more at Interior Finalizes Rule, Gets Hit with Industry Lawsuit

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