Court rejects Trump's delay of EPA drilling pollution rule

The Trump administration cannot delay an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule limiting methane pollution from oil and natural gas drilling, a federal court ruled Monday.

In an early court loss for President Trump’s aggressive agenda of environmental deregulation, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the EPA didn’t meet the requirements for a 90-day stay of the Obama administration’s methane rule.

The decision means the EPA must immediately start enforcing the standards.

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s decision to delay enforcement of the provision was based on arguments that when the Obama administration wrote the rule, it violated procedures by not allowing stakeholders to comment on some parts of what became the final regulation. The agency used that reasoning to formally reconsider the rule and to pause enforcement.

But the court said the argument doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

“The administrative record thus makes clear that industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on all four issues on which EPA granted reconsideration, and indeed, that in several instances the agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule,” two of the judges on the three-judge panel wrote.

“Because it was thus not ‘impracticable’ for industry groups to have raised such objections during the notice and comment period [the Clean Air Act] did not require reconsideration and did not authorize the stay.”

Environmental groups led by the Environmental Defense Fund had sued the EPA after its delay, asking for quick emergency action from the court on the matter.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency is reviewing the court’s opinion and evaluating its options.

Tim Ballo, an attorney at Earthjustice who represents some of the groups involved, cheered the decision as a resounding victory.
 
“This is a big win for public health and a wake-up call for this administration,” he said in a statement. “While Scott Pruitt and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE continue to bend over backwards to do the bidding of Big Oil, Earthjustice and our clients and partners will use every tool at our disposal to hold them fully accountable for their actions.”

The decision could spell trouble for the Trump administration, which is working to dismantle nearly all of former President Obama’s major environmental rules.

In many cases, Trump officials are unilaterally delaying regulations such as the EPA’s rules on ozone pollution, safety plans for chemical plants and methane pollution from landfills.

But the D.C. court, the main court for hearing challenges to regulatory decisions, warned the administration it would take a hard look at such delays and would allow them to proceed only if they are specifically required under the law.

Judge David Tatel, appointed by former President Clinton, and Judge Robert Wilkins, appointed by Obama, wrote the decision.

Judge Janice Brown, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote a dissenting opinion. She argued the court has no authority to rule in the case because it is not a final action by the EPA.

The 2016 rule by Obama was part of a regulatory strategy to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas about 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Pruitt, who was Oklahoma's Republican attorney general at the time, was one of dozens of parties to sue the EPA in a bid to have the rule overturned.

The EPA has proposed to delay the methane regulation by two years while it formally considers repeal. Since that delay has not been made final, the decision Monday does not affect it.

The Trump administration is working to undo all of Obama’s methane rules, including the landfill rule and one from the Bureau of Land Management.

— This report was updated at 2:41 p.m.