Late last night, a U.S. District Court granted a preliminary injunction striking down Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s attempt to delay for one year implementation of the Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste rule. A coalition of government watchdog groups filed a lawsuit in December 2017 to prevent Zinke from delaying implementation of measures to reduce waste of methane by oil and gas companies on federal public lands.
This marks the fourth failure to scuttle the BLM methane waste rule, which enjoys support from 75 percent of Westerners and in principle from at least one oil and gas giant–ExxonMobil, since the present administration took office. 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.
“This is a great win for taxpayers, public health, and the environment,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. “Together with Wyoming federal court’s denial of industry’s request to halt implementation, the Senate’s rejection of a Congressional Review Act repeal, and the U.S. District Court’s ruling against indefinite methane rule suspension, it’s increasingly clear Sec. Zinke and the BLM are on the wrong side of the law.”
“The court’s decision means the BLM Methane Waste Rule is again the law of the land, representing yet another example of the courts stopping this administration’s clear agenda to aid oil and gas industry at the expense of the public,” said Darin Schroeder, an attorney with Clean Air Task Force. “This significant decision also sheds doubt on other attempts by the Trump administration to rescind rules without any factual justification for the policy change,” said Schroeder.
“This ruling shows the courts won’t allow the Trump administration to flout the law to reward the fossil fuel industry,” said Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unchecked methane waste hurts our lungs, rips off taxpayers and cooks the planet.”
Before even receiving comment on the rule, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke represented to a federal court that he would delay the rule. The BLM then conducted a go-through-the-motions notice-and-comment process—featuring a lightning-fast comment period, next-to-no stakeholder outreach, and blocked comment on key points, culminating in a final rule that largely ignored citizen concerns. This is not how the law is designed to work. The law requires a reasoned give-and-take between the affected public and the agency that is designed to infuse democratic legitimacy into agency rulemaking. Here the court found that BLM failed to adhere to this required interplay by failing to consider all of the comments it should have and relying on “opinions untethered to evidence.” BLM’s 1-year delay was therefore not grounded in a reasoned analysis as required by law.
Last week, BLM officially proposed rescinding the methane waste rule permanently. The public comment period for this proposal is 60 days. If Zinke and BLM ignore public input in support of the rule as expected, those changes to the rule will by BLM’s 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 2016 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.
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. 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. 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). The Trump administration’s decision to delay implementation of the BLM waste rule would allow industry to avoid these common-sense waste reduction measures, and continue to unnecessarily waste our publicly owned resources while the administration attempts to figure out how to kill the rule outright as a gift to its oil and gas benefactors. 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 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.