Industry should comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule

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Before leaving office, President Obama instituted a rule limiting the oil and gas industry’s wasting of natural gas on public and tribal lands. The standard, formally known as the Methane Waste Prevention Rule, was a set of commonsense updates – such as requiring companies to detect and fix leaky equipment – projected to bring in an additional $23 million annually in royalties to states, tribes and federal taxpayers, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 950,000 cars off the road.

Setting an upper limit on how much gas producers can leak into the air as part of the extraction process was long overdue. The Mineral Leasing Act requires the Bureau of Land Management to ensure that operators “use all reasonable precautions to prevent waste of oil or gas.” Federal officials were relying on 35-year-old rules to enforce that mandate.

{mosads}Leaked natural gas worsens climate change – methane has about 25 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide – and costs taxpayers money because in most cases companies don’t pay royalties on wasted gas. Once leaked, this valuable public resource is lost forever. Continuing to rely on weak, outdated rules made no sense.

Although the Obama standard was practical and had benefits that clearly outweighed the costs, industry figures protested so bitterly that the Trump administration vowed to cancel it. So far, those attempts have been amateurish. The rushed efforts to let industry off the hook by delaying compliance dates for the rule were recently struck down by a district court in California, which described the White House proposal as “untethered to evidence.”

The industry’s response to that ruling has been telling. Rather than complying with the standard by installing available technology and limiting their wasteful habits, drillers on Feb. 28 simply asked the courts to make the rule disappear. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance, an industry lobbying group, petitioned a judge in Wyoming to put the Obama rule on hold again because private companies aren’t prepared to follow it.

The argument is essentially that Trump swore to make the rule go away, businesses built their investment and compliance strategies on that promise, and now that Trump’s words proved hollow they’re in no position to comply with the law as it stands.

This is the private sector equivalent of claiming the dog ate your homework. Republicans in Congress and the administration have no excuse for letting the industry get away with it, and in similar circumstances would have no trouble cracking down on less politically friendly actors. Unfortunately, they’re encouraging this behavior every step of the way.

We saw how politically unwise this course is for Republicans when they attempted to use the Congressional Review Act – a slash-and-burn deregulatory tool used to destroy other Obama-era standards – to repeal the Methane Waste Prevention Rule in 2017. As the idea gained steam in March 2017, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, falsely claimed the rule “will create higher economic costs, reduce jobs and revenues, and weaken our energy security.”

This argument failed to win the day. Voices across the country, including those in the West, objected to the move and spoke out about the rule’s public benefits. The vote to rescind the standard failed in the Senate, marking the only unsuccessful vote to repeal a rule in this Congress.

But Republicans seem to have learned nothing from the experience. On Feb. 12, the day the Trump administration announced it would undo the rule, my colleague Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, claimed the rollback was necessary because the Obama administration “scorned domestic energy development and crafted the prior rule to deliberately stifle it.”

These signals and others like them told the industry it has nothing to fear in terms of congressional oversight. Indeed, Republicans in Congress – whose duties, let’s not forget, include oversight of the economy and compliance with federal regulations – have accepted or encouraged the industry’s strategy. Thanks to the Republican stranglehold on Capitol Hill, neither the House nor Senate has held a single hearing on industry’s refusal to comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule since it was first adopted.

As a political talking point, it’s fine to disagree with the Obama methane standard. The rule’s fiscal, environmental, and health benefits are well-documented, but as a philosophical matter one can always give priority to preventing industry costs over generating wider public benefits.

It’s another thing to use this talking point as a business or governing strategy. Industry should comply with the Methane Waste Prevention Rule or Republicans should ask them why they’re not bothering. Otherwise we’ll find out what happens when the industry runs out of judges to petition.

Grijalva is ranking member on the Natural Resource Committee.

Tags Lisa Murkowski Rob Bishop

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