Energy & Environment

Senate rejects repeal of Obama drilling rule

Three Republicans joined Senate Democrats on Wednesday to reject an effort to overturn an Obama administration rule limiting methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.

Only 49 senators voted to move forward with debate on legislation to undo the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rule, short of the 51 votes needed.  

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.) joined all 48 members of the Democratic caucus in rejecting the resolution under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). 

{mosads}Graham and Collins had previously publicized their plans to vote against the legislation. But McCain’s vote came as a surprise.

McCain said that he voted against the resolution because he fears that it would have prevented the BLM from writing an improved regulation in the future.

“While I am concerned that the BLM rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar,’ according to the plain reading of the Congressional Review Act,” he said in a statement. 

“I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the BLM methane rule.” 

The vote marks the first time Republicans have rejected a resolution to repeal an Obama administration regulation since President Trump took office, and came the morning after the president sparked a firestorm with his firing of FBI Director James Comey. 

The failure of the resolution is a loss for congressional Republicans, who had targeted the methane rule as one of the main Obama regulations they wanted to reverse. Opponents of the rule argue that it unnecessarily adds costs to oil and natural gas drilling on federal land. 

But the defeat of the resolution is a victory for environmentalists, who in recent weeks put up a comprehensive fight to sway vulnerable and moderate senators against repeal. 

Vice President Pence came to the Capitol in case his vote was needed to break a tie. Republicans went into a side room off of the Senate floor after the final vote was submitted and held the vote open, but no senator changed his or her vote.

“This was a very duplicative, unnecessary act of government interference in an area where BLM had no authority,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said, telling reporters he would ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to withdraw the rule administratively instead. 

“It was over-regulation by the Obama administration, and we tried to remove it with the Congressional Review Act. That fell one vote short today, and as a result we’ll call on the secretary to withdraw it.” 

In a letter to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) last week, Zinke said that no matter what happens with the repeal vote, BLM would “take concrete action to reduce methane waste,” including expediting permitting for pipelines to carry more natural gas, reviewing existing policies and encouraging the use of methane at drilling sites. 

Drillers opposed the Obama administration rule, however, argue they have already done a good job of cutting methane emissions through a combination of self policing and state regulations. The American Petroleum Institute called the rule “technically flawed” and an “unnecessary and costly misstep.” 

“While it is disappointing that the Senate did not act to correct the rule more quickly, we look forward to working with the administration on policies that continue our commitment to safely produce the energy that Americans rely on, help consumers, create jobs, strengthen our national security, and protect our environment,” Erik Milito, the group’s upstream and industry operations group director, said in a statement.

Democrats cheered the resolution’s failure, and seemed surprised that it happened. 

“This is a good, solid rule, and it’s a commonsense rule, and I think it prevents waste just like it was laid out to do,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said on the floor. “We’re preventing waste, we’re doing job creation, and we’re acting on the part of public health.”  

Greens and conservationists in the West, where there is widespread public land gas development, had strongly opposed the resolution.

“The oil and gas industry tried to buy a win today, but came up short,” Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jennifer Rokala said. 

“This vote ensures that less taxpayer-owned natural gas will be wasted, saving all Americans money and giving Westerners cleaner air to breathe.” 

The vote was the Senate GOP’s last chance to overturn an Obama rule through the CRA, which provides a streamlined method for blocking regulations, but only under a strict time limit. 

Trump signed 13 CRA resolutions into law this year, by far the most extensive use of the law in its history. Environmental rules — including those related to coal pollution, land management, hunting in Alaska and financial disclosures for drillers and miners — were among the biggest targets for Republicans.  

The methane resolution was the only one passed by the House not to reach Trump’s desk.

The methane rule sets standards for what oil and natural gas drillers on federal land must do to stop the waste of methane, the key component of natural gas, through venting or burning it at the well site.

It is primarily designed to prevent the waste of a valuable resource that belongs to taxpayers. But since methane is a greenhouse gas as much as 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the rule also has benefits for reducing climate change. 

The rule was part of a wide-ranging strategy by Obama to tackle methane emissions in the final years of his presidency.  

While the congressional effort has failed, Trump’s Interior Department is likely to try to repeal the rule itself through the rulemaking process.

Kate MacGregor, Interior’s acting secretary for land and minerals, said in a statement that the agency has already identified the rule as one the agency will “suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation,” citing Trump’s March 28 executive order asking agencies to repeal or change rules that hurt domestic energy production and use.

Interior did not say which of those options it will choose for the methane rule. Repealing or rewriting it could take a year or more, and would be subject to litigation by environmentalists and other opponents.

“The rule is expected to have real and harmful impacts on onshore energy development and could impact state and local jobs and revenue,” said MacGregor. “Small independent oil and gas producers in states like North Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico, which account for a substantial portion of our nation’s energy wealth, could be hit the hardest. 

— This report was updated at 1:53 p.m.

Tags John Barrasso John McCain Lindsey Graham Rob Portman Susan Collins Tom Udall

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