Energy & Environment

Court strikes down Obama-era rule targeting methane leaks from public lands drilling

A federal court on Thursday struck down an Obama-era regulation targeting methane leaks from drilling on public lands, arguing that it went beyond the scope of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which promulgated the rule. 

The 2016 rule required oil and gas companies to cut a practice called flaring, in which natural gas is burned, by half, inspect their sites for leaks and replace old equipment that released too much methane. 

The court argued that although the rule’s stated purpose was to reduce waste, it was essentially used to regulate air quality, which is not the job of the BLM. 

“Although the stated purpose of the Rule is waste prevention, significant aspects of the Rule evidence its primary purpose being driven by an effort to regulate air emissions, particularly greenhouse gases,” wrote judge Scott Skavdahl, an Obama appointee. 

Skavdahl particularly noted that the rule’s cost-benefit analysis only showed the rule to be beneficial “if the ancillary benefits to global climate change are factored in.”

“Without these ‘indirect’ benefits, the costs of the Rule likely more than double the benefits every year,” he wrote. 

The Trump administration had issued a rollback of the Obama-era rule, but that too was recently struck down in court. 

The Obama administration billed its rule as an update to “30-year old regulations governing venting, flaring, and leaks of natural gas,” saying it “will help curb waste of public resources, [and] reduce harmful methane emissions.”

Since both of the recent rules were struck down, those decades-old rules appear to now govern methane leaks. 

The Interior Department celebrated the ruling, signaling that it’s unlikely to appeal the decision. 

Interior spokesperson Nicholas Goodwin, in a statement, called the 2016 rule “illegal, another job-crushing regulation targeted at small businesses and more government overreach.”

“Today’s decision is a win for the American people, the rule of law and our country’s economic future,” he added. 

Methane is a major greenhouse gas, significantly more potent than carbon dioxide, and it’s also the primary component of natural gas. 

The Obama administration projected that its rule would cut methane emissions from public lands by 35 percent. 

The new ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance, two oil and gas groups. 

“We are overjoyed that an overreaching regulation has been overturned today,” said a statement from Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance. “Hopefully, we can quit playing boomerang between the two courts and get back to sensible regulation within BLM’s purview.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, expressed disagreement with the ruling. 

“We are disappointed, and deeply concerned, with today’s ruling,” the Environmental Defense Fund’s lead attorney Peter Zalzal said in a statement.

“Vacating the Waste Prevention Rule will harm tribal and Western communities by increasing the waste of natural gas and reducing revenues that these communities could otherwise use to fund roads and invest in schools and much-needed health care programs,” he said.

Zalzal added that the group is “evaluating all of our options to ensure the critical safeguards in the Waste Prevention Rule remain in place to confer these urgently needed benefits.”

Tags Bureau of Land Management Greenhouse gas emissions Methane Natural gas
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