Trump regulators trigger pollution fight

Trump regulators trigger pollution fight
© Greg Nash

The fight over former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaEx-White House stenographer: Trump is ‘lying to the American people’ Trump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage MORE’s methane agenda has moved to the courts. 

The Trump administration last week took two major steps toward wiping a pair of Obama-era methane pollution rules off the books. 

Environmental groups have sued to stop President Trump from nixing the rules, though the oil and gas industry has stepped up to defend the administration’s actions. 

Taken together, observers expect a raucous, lengthy legal fight over the standards, which were a key part of Obama’s climate change agenda.

“I expect at every step, we’ll be sued by the environmental groups,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the industry-funded Western Energy Alliance, which wants to end the methane regulations.

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Two agencies with jurisdiction over methane pollution said this week that they would delay the standards established by the Obama administration while they move to reconsider — and likely rewrite or repeal — the rules.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed delaying several aspects of its methane emissions rule for two years while reconsidering the measure, which sets emissions standards at drilling sites.

The next day, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said it would propose delaying compliance dates for its methane rule, which is due to impact drillers operating on federal lands by next January.

Green groups have already sued over the EPA’s decision, and lawyers say they expect to file suit against Interior as well.

Rewriting the methane rules was a key component of Trump’s energy platform during his presidential campaign, and an executive order in March directed the agencies to begin the process.

Environmentalists have dug in, vowing they will fight any effort to overturn the strict limits Obama set on methane leaks and flaring.

But the first legal skirmish over the methane regulations is relatively narrow, focused simply on keeping the measures on the books while the rewrite process moves forward.

In their suit against the EPA, filed last week, environmental opponents said the agency couldn’t legally justify its decision to delay implementation of the methane rule while reviewing it. 

The agency and industry supporters like the Western Energy Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute say such a move is allowed under the law.

The EPA argued in a court filing this week that it “has broad discretion to reconsider its rules” and it “also has broad authority to issue a brief stay.”

“EPA’s decision fell well within the range of reasonable outcomes that were available to it,” the agency wrote.

But environmentalists say the regulation should stay in effect so that its predicted benefits — fewer leaks of a powerful greenhouse gas and other pollutants — can kick in as well.

“Those leaks are a major source of pollution and it affects communities that live nearby … and it affects the planet as a whole because methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas,” said David Doniger, the director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The point is to stop the leaks, to zip up the leaks.”

Greens have yet to challenge the BLM’s decision, but Earthjustice associate attorney Joel Minor said, “I think I can say litigation is likely.”

The law “sets clear standards for the processes that agencies must follow when they take actions,” Minor said. “It is clear that the Trump administration, in its rush to enact whatever the oil and gas industry asks it to, is trying to find ways around those requirements.”

Obama and his administration’s regulators insisted that cutting emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with at least 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, would be an effective way to combat climate change.

The Obama administration created a methane reduction master plan in 2014 and eventually partnered with Canada on a strategy to cut emissions at natural gas and oil drilling sites in both countries.

The EPA finalized a rule last year to cut emissions from new wells and began work on a regulation for existing wells. The BLM in November finished work on a new well rule of its own, this time governing operations on federal land.

Trump ran on a platform of deregulating the American fossil fuel sector, and in a March executive order, he rescinded Obama’s methane action plan and set the stage for repealing the individual regulations under it.

Republicans in the Senate failed to end the BLM’s rule through the Congressional Review Act (CRA) earlier this year, dealing a blow to industry groups.

But the Trump administration has moved forward with rewrites anyway: Before moving to pause the rules this week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt — who himself sued against the agency’s methane standards as Oklahoma attorney general — said he would not follow through with the existing site rule initiated by Obama.

The legal fight over the methane standards flips the script from the Obama administration.

During the Obama years, it was industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute and conservative states that were suing the feds over the standards, saying they were duplicative, overly broad and carried expensive compliance costs. The groups haven’t won yet in federal court, but they are already working to make sure Trump follows through on his promise to end the rules.

“The CRA was our preferred choice. That was plan A, and now we’re engaging on plan B and C,” Sgamma said.

“We’re in court on both of those rules, so we will be supporting the administration as they consider those rules.”

Environmentalists — who once allied with Obama and his efforts to cut methane — are bracing for a long fight with the new administration, acknowledging that they’re likely to go back to court to stop any Trump-initiated changes to the rules themselves, whenever they might come.

“If they ever get around to proposing the changes they want to make, we will comment on that and almost surely challenge those moves in court, too,” Doniger said.

“Meanwhile, the existing rules are supposed to be in effect, and people are supposed to be getting the benefits of the pollution reduction.”