Wasting natural gas on public lands

Wasting natural gas on public lands
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Back in 2010, the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan “congressional watchdog” for waste, fraud, and abuse in government, highlighted a growing problem. Under outdated requirements, the Bureau of Land Management was allowing private companies that produce oil and gas on public lands — resources that belong to the American public — to waste huge amounts of natural gas by burning it off, or venting or leaking it into the air.

GAO estimated that about 40 percent of the wasted gas could be cost-effectively captured and put to productive use, boosting U.S. energy supplies and providing states, tribes, and American taxpayers with millions of dollars in additional royalty revenues. Today, the waste is ongoing, but the Trump BLM just proposed to rescind rules to address the problem.


In November 2016, after six years of hard work by BLM petroleum engineers, scientists, economists, and other staff, working with states, tribes, industry representatives, and environmental advocates, BLM issued the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. The rule requires producers to take simple actions to reduce natural gas waste, such as developing a plan to capture the gas from a new oil well before drilling the well, replacing outdated equipment that vents large quantities of gas, and periodically checking for gas leaks.


We were proud to be part of the team that developed these win-win-win requirements. If BLM leaves the waste rule in place, these common-sense and cost-effective measures will address the waste problem identified by the GAO, boosting domestic energy supplies and generating revenue for taxpayers. The measures will also improve air quality and keep Americans healthier because the wasted natural gas is mostly methane — a powerful air pollutant that contributes to smog and climate change.

But on Feb. 22, Trump’s BLM proposed to rescind the waste rule. In its place, BLM would adopt a weakened version of the decades-old prior requirements, which were a proven failure: between 2009 and 2015, producers wasted enough gas from public and Indian lands to supply over 6 million households for a year — or roughly every household in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah combined.

GAO had recommended that BLM update its requirements to reflect readily available technologies because the old requirements, adopted in 1979, did not account for the realities of modern oil and gas production. Those requirements predated the oil and gas boom unleashed through hydraulic fracturing, which was accompanied by a huge increase in flaring.

They never contemplated today’s technologies for capturing more gas, such as low-venting equipment that saves operators money and hand-held infrared cameras that can instantly identify otherwise invisible leaks. The Trump BLM is proposing to bring back the 1979 requirements, but with a twist — BLM would now leave flaring oversight to states. BLM proposes to do nothing not only about leaks and most venting, but flaring as well.

There is no legitimate justification for replacing the sensible measures of the waste rule with an approach that would actually worsen the waste problem identified by the GAO almost a decade ago. Nowhere in the lengthy proposal does BLM assert that its previous estimates of gas loss were wrong, or that the waste problem has been solved. BLM simply contorts the economic analysis to find that net benefits would be higher without the Waste Rule, uses these funny numbers to justify the rule’s repeal, and then proposes to reinstate but weaken its past, failed approach. 

We believe the waste rule struck the right balance, but we recognize that the Trump BLM could choose to take a different approach to meet its waste-reduction responsibilities. What BLM may not do is ignore its statutory responsibility, and neglect its moral obligation to the American people, to steward the nation’s energy resources. Every day, producers flare, vent, and leak vast quantities of the public’s natural gas. The problem is real — BLM’s proposed response, however, is a sham.

Alexandra E. Teitz, principal at AT Strategies, LLC, is the former counselor to the director at the Bureau of Land Management, serving from 2014-2017 

Amanda Cohen Leiter is a professor at American University Washington College of Law. She is the former deputy assistant secretary for Land and Minerals at U.S. Department of the Interior from 2015-2017.