Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands

Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands
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The Trump administration on Tuesday finalized its plans to weaken regulations on methane gas releases from drilling on public land.

The action from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rolls back key provisions of an Obama-era rule that limited releases of the greenhouse gas during oil and gas production on publicly owned lands leased to fossil fuel companies.

The new rule is expected to allow for more leaks of the gas through a practice known as venting or flaring, adding to air pollution. The Obama administration estimated that the practice cost taxpayers more than $330 million annually in lost revenue.

The new rule is being described by the Trump administration as a way to reduce burdens on the private sector.

The rule would limit regulations that “unnecessarily encumber energy production, constraining growth and preventing job creation,” David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, told reporters Tuesday on a press call.

The announcement from the Trump administration comes a week after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to roll back a separate methane regulation that sought to limit release of the gas from drilling nationwide.

“Sadly, the flawed 2016 rule was a radical assertion of legal authority that stood in stark contrast to the longstanding understanding of Interior’s own lawyers,” Bernhardt said in a statement Tuesday. “The Trump Administration is committed to innovative regulatory improvement and environmental stewardship, while appropriately respecting the clear and distinct authorities of the States, Tribes, as well as the direction we receive from Congress.”

Methane is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its effect on global warming. While methane makes up only about 10 percent of greenhouse gases, according to the EPA, both methane rules were key to the Obama administration’s push to lessen the impacts of climate change.

With Tuesday’s rollback, the Interior Department is rescinding many of the key portions of the Obama rule, including requirements for drillers to establish written plans to reduce wasted gas and requirements to capture a certain percentages of gas.

The finalized rule largely reverts the methane rule back to where it stood before former President Obama took office by repealing leak detection mandates and the Obama-era drilling and well completion standards, among other provisions.

Kate MacGregor, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said the changes acknowledge the importance of oil and gas extraction at more moderately producing wells on federal land by easing regulations to keep them in operation.

BLM estimates that 73 percent of wells on federal land are considered marginal producers — producing 10 barrels of oil per day or less. Those wells contributed $2.9 billion in economic activity in 2015, according to a BLM statistic cited by MacGregor.

“We wanted to ensure that these reserves are not being abandoned in the ground due to high compliance costs,” she added.

Administration officials said the changes would put regulatory power back into the hands of states, arguing that the “one size fits all” Obama rule often conflicted with local methane regulations, making it cumbersome for oil and gas producers.

The Interior Department added that the rollback would save as much as $2.08 billion over 10 years as a result of reduced industry compliance costs. However, the agency conceded that there would be societal costs of as much as $1.09 billion over a decade due to wasted gas and the negative impacts of climate change.

The Obama administration had estimated that the natural gas waste they were aiming to prevent would cost taxpayers more than $330 million annually in lost revenue.

Tim Spisak, BLM’s acting head for energy, could not tell reporters on Tuesday how much methane emissions would be increased or decreased under the new rule, saying that the figure would be included in a yet-to-be-released document.

The Obama administration’s rule took effect in January 2017, shortly before President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE took office. Trump officials delayed enforcement of that rule, though a California court in February of this year said the delay was unlawful.

Shortly after, a Wyoming court stopped the underlying Obama rule from going forward. Separately, Congress almost repealed the rule on its own, but came up one vote short in the Senate, due to a surprise “no” vote from Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Recession fears climb and markets dive — now what? MORE (R-Ariz.).

Methane, a primary component of natural gas, can be a dangerous fume. The two largest contributors of methane are leaks from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock.

The BLM first announced in February that it would be looking to roll back the regulation. While Obama’s EPA rule applied nationally, Interior’s standards were targeted only toward drillers on federal land such as national parks.

Conservationists criticized Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeNew policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press Overnight Energy: EPA proposes scrapping limits on coal plant waste | Appointee overseeing federal lands once advocated selling them | EPA lifts Obama-era block on controversial mine Latest appointee overseeing federal public lands once advocated to sell them MORE for the final rule, saying it benefits the fossil fuel industry at the expense of taxpayers.

“Secretary Zinke needs to look American taxpayers in the eye and explain why he cost them $800 million over the next decade,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of Western Values Project, said in a statement. “Axing this rule lines the pockets of the corporate special interests that have bought and paid for Secretary Zinke and hurts the American taxpayer.”

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallDemocrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections Republicans should get behind the 28th Amendment New Mexico says EPA abandoned state in fight against toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-N.M.) called the new rule “another egregious giveaway to irresponsible polluters.”

“The methane rule was established with wide support after years of open dialogue and stakeholder involvement,” he said. “And the evidence is clear: this rule has had no negative effect on job creation or on the booming U.S. oil and gas production on federal lands.”

California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraCalifornia leads states in lawsuit over Trump public charge rule Overnight Energy: Trump sparks new fight over endangered species protections | States sue over repeal of Obama power plant rules | Interior changes rules for ethics watchdogs California counties file first lawsuit over Trump 'public charge' rule MORE (D) plans to file a lawsuit Tuesday to challenge the rollback, his spokeswoman said.

Trump supporters applauded the move.

“Today’s announcement fulfills the promise made by the Trump administration to remove regulatory hurdles on domestic energy production,” Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopThe House Republicans and Democrats not seeking reelection in 2020 Texas GOP lawmaker Conaway announces retirement Texas GOP Rep. Conaway won't seek reelection: report MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.

“The previous rule was founded on questionable legal theory and resulted in unnecessary costs. This regulatory decision by the Trump administration improves environmental outcomes without negative economic impact.”

The American Petroleum Institute also welcomed the rollback.

“We support smart, cost effective BLM regulations that focus on prevention of waste and the conservation of resources,” Erik Milito, the group’s director for upstream operations, said in a statement.

Updated at 5:37 p.m.