Critics decry the move while the industry welcomes the changes; federal judge rules against DOI


FARMINGTON — New standards for methane emissions from oil and gas wells, which look a lot like pre-Obama Administration standards, were rolled out in mid-February by the Bureau of Land Management for public comment.

They were warmly greeted by some energy state legislators — and promptly roasted by others in Congress, environmental groups and some Four Corners activists.

Not long after the feds ran straight into an adverse court ruling thanks to a lawsuit by the attorneys general of New Mexico and California. A federal judge last week rejected the Trump administration's efforts to delay the Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands.

The Trump Administration proposal adopts standards similar to those that existed before the Obama-era restrictions were upheld by the U.S. Senate in May of 2017 but suspended for a year by the Trump Administration in December 2017.

The Trump proposal replaces a stricter rule that would require some rigs to install new monitoring equipment, which some in the oil and gas industry have warned would cause the shutdown of marginally producing wells.

The new package includes a 60-day comment period.

Reforming the rules

The changes were called for under President Donald Trump’s March 2017 Executive Order 13783, which sought to promote energy independence by reviewing and modifying federal regulations that the administration feels unnecessarily stifle energy development and the economy.

A Trump Administration official said the changes are necessary.

“In order to achieve energy dominance through responsible energy production, we need smart regulations not punitive regulations,” Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash said in the BLM release. “We believe this proposed rule strikes that balance and will allow job growth in rural America.”

The 2016 final Waste Prevention Rule, also widely known as the venting and flaring rule, was the subject of lawsuits and public hearings last year.

BLM’s proposed rule “would eliminate duplicative regulatory requirements and re-establish long-standing requirements that the 2016 final rule sought to replace,” the agency said in the press release. 

The rules would be “similar to those that were in force prior to the 2016 final rule,” the release said. “This proposal would align the regulations with administration priorities on energy development, job creation and reduced compliance costs while also working more closely with existing state regulatory efforts.”

The BLM would rescind seven of the 2016 rule’s provisions involving waste minimization plans, well drilling and completion requirements, pneumatic controller and pump equipment requirements, storage vessel equipment requirements and leak detection and repair requirements. These requirements would be “more appropriately regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency,” a BLM document outlining the proposed revisions states.

The BLM questions whether the rule exceeds the BLM’s statutory authority, saying that the 2016 rule, “rather than preventing ‘waste,’ was actually intended to regulate air quality — a matter within the regulatory jurisdiction of the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the states under the Clean Air Act,” according to the document.

The proposed revisions also say the federal rule steps on the toes of state regulations that are already in place, citing emissions regulations enforced by California, Colorado, North Dakota and Utah.

“Gutting” of methane rules protested

Opponents were quick to respond.

Aztec City Commissioner Katee McClure, who has been active in opposing the methane rule’s rollback, said the proposal “confirms that current federal leadership puts private interests ahead of public welfare and does not support public health, the environment or cracking down on preventable methane emissions that would mean money for local governments.”

“Clean air and smart, efficient use of resources are western values, which is why Western Leaders Network opposes the rollback of the BLM methane rule,” she said in a prepared release. “By undoing the rule, the Trump administration is allowing millions of taxpayer dollars to go to waste and air pollution to continue to jeopardize the health of farmers, ranchers, outdoorsmen and women, energy industry employees and the general public.”

National groups also chimed in.

“The BLM rule has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and across the West. Despite this broad support, Secretary (Ryan) Zinke has repeatedly tried to unwind these critical protections,” Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said Feb. 12. “The proposal he put forward today would only serve to reward the least responsible actors in industry at a time when other companies are moving forward to tackle methane waste. Gutting the rule would allow unchecked waste of natural gas, unnecessary pollution, and the loss of revenue to communities and tribes to address critical needs such as schools and roads.”

The Sierra Club said the move benefits the oil and gas industry at the expense of New Mexico taxpayers.

“Again and again, New Mexicans have stood up to say, ‘Don't waste our natural gas from our publicly owned lands.’ This message was so powerful that even Congress refused to roll these rules back,” said Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman. “So we will stand up once again to defend against methane waste and pollution.”

Feibelman noted that methane “is the main ingredient in natural gas. Each year, oil and gas operators waste enough methane to meet the heating and cooking needs of every home in New Mexico. This amounts to as much as $27 million in lost taxes and royalties annually.”

The proposal sat well with a Republican New Mexico legislator.

“The impacts of BLM’s Obama-era venting and flaring rule would be devastating to the economy of New Mexico, which relies on the production of energy resources for thousands of jobs along with roughly 30-40 percent of the State’s operating funds,” U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce said in a statement included in BLM’s press release.

“The full implementation of this rule would directly threaten funding for schools, teachers, hospitals, law enforcement, and other essential services our communities rely on,” Pearce continued. “I appreciate the secretary’s commitment to improving this rule and look forward to working with the department to move these necessary reforms forward.”

But New Mexico Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich called on citizens to comment on a rule they say works against state residents.

“The BLM’s proposal to gut a rule designed to limit wasteful venting and flaring of natural gas would hurt taxpayers, school children, New Mexico’s economy, and our environment,” they said in a joint statement. “Ultimately, it would rob the state of New Mexico of millions of dollars in royalties that could be used to pay for school books, hospitals, and infrastructure projects, and to keep our air clean.”

They said comments can be mailed to the U.S. Department of the Interior, Director (630), Bureau of Land Management, Mail Stop 2134LM, 1849 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20240, Attention:  1004-AE52.

As for Congress, Heinrich and Udall said federal lawmakers already have spoken in favor of the Obama-era rule.

“The arguments being made against this rule do not hold water, and that's why last year, a bipartisan group of senators successfully voted down an effort in Congress to scrap it,” they said in the statement. “Since the rule came into effect in November 2016, employment data shows no evidence of any jobs lost, and the number of drilling rigs in operation has increased significantly. In Colorado and Wyoming, which also have state-level rules, a methane mitigation business has grown strong, creating new jobs.”

The BLM’s statements said the financial impact on oil and gas well operators “was underestimated in the 2016 rule. In addition, a review of existing state and federal regulations found considerable overlap with the rule.”

That concern was long held by energy industry groups like the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, whose spokesman, Robert McEntyre, said the proposed revisions are a welcome development.

“We believe any rule regulating methane emissions ought to be common-sense and cost-effective, and this (2016) rule was neither,” McEntyre said on Feb. 13. “The steps by the Trump administration and the Department of the Interior are welcome news for the oil and gas industry, and ultimately welcome news for our state and for our budget that will have opportunity to grow without burdensome regulations.”

States win lawsuit, judge rules against feds

The Associated press reported Feb. 23 that second federal judge has rejected the Trump administration's efforts to delay an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California ordered the Interior Department to reinstate the regulation, which the Trump administration has repeatedly moved to delay or suspend.

Orrick said Interior's delay was "untethered to evidence" and likely to cause "irreparable injury" to California, New Mexico and other states in the form of increased air pollution and negative impacts on public health and the climate.

The ruling marks the second time a federal judge has rebuffed the Trump administration for failing to enforce the methane rule.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte ordered the Obama rule reinstated in October.

Sierra Club Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign Director Kelly Martin seemed defiant in her reaction to the ruling.
“Though they seem to think otherwise, Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke are not above the law. Once again, the courts are serving as a critical backstop against their reckless attempts to unravel key protections for our air, water, and climate," Martin said in a release Feb. 23. "This ruling is a victory for our communities’ health and the climate, and we will continue to fight to hold this administration accountable and defend this critical clean air standard.”

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman McEntyre said Friday that the ruling was "a procedural victory" but does not stop the Trump administration from re-writing the rule. He said the ruling adds to the atmosphere of "regulatory uncertainty."

Megan Petersen and John R. Moses of The Daily Times staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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