EPA must follow Obama-era methane emissions requirement

Staff and Wire Report
A flaring stack is pictured Jan. 8 near Lybrook.

The decision wasn’t unanimous, but a federal appeals court told the head of the Environmental Protection Agency he overstepped his authority by delaying implementation of a 2016 rule requiring oil and gas companies to monitor and reduce methane leaks.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Monday that the EPA must move forward with the Obama-era requirement that aims to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

One of the three judges dissented, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the matter.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in April that he would delay by 90 days the deadline for oil and gas companies to follow the new rule, which they were required to comply with starting last month.

EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham said the agency was reviewing the court's opinion and examining its options. The EPA could seek to appeal the matter to the Supreme Court.

Natural gas is largely made up of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps dozens of times more heat in the planet's atmosphere than the same amount of carbon dioxide. Environmental groups contend that actual methane emissions from leaks and intentional venting at fossil-fuel operations are many times greater than what is now publicly reported.
The emergency motion was filed by the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, Earthworks, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Integrity Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A spokesperson for one plaintiff declared the ruling a victory for New Mexico citizens and its economy.

“The current decision says EPA has to enforce the methane rule as finalized for now,” New Mexico-based Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter Director Camilla Feibelman said via email Monday. “The EPA is currently taking comments on proposed changes that would delay compliance for two years, but that won't go into effect until the fall.”
A similar, indefinite rule suspension last month by the Bureau of Land Management for operations on land under its jurisdiction is not part of this lawsuit and ruling.

Oil and gas industry representatives view implementation of the EPA’s rule as a job killer that will cause low production wells to shut down and result in less revenue for state coffers to pay for things like roads and schools.

The New Mexico Oil & Gas Association has stated online that the rule, as written, "will cause unnecessary and severe economic harm to our state, our communities, and real lives."

"Over the past 25 years, from 1990 to 2015, as oil and gas production has increased methane gas emissions have declined," NMOGA spokesman Robert McEntyre said last month in the Daily Times’ Energy magazine. He said the industry group hopes to move forward with common sense and science-based rules.

The Sierra Club disagrees.

"This ruling means that hundreds of new wells in New Mexico will have to capture methane, a natural resource that belongs to all Americans,” Feibelman said in a press release. “This is a gas that is being extracted from public lands and is simply wasted by private companies. Capturing methane will bring more royalties into the state and will protect kids from smog associated with this pollution."

Money from New Mexico’s oil and gas-related revenues, royalties, and taxes sent $1.6 billion into the New Mexico General Fund, according to the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association website.
That fund pays for “public schools, roads, health care, and public safety,” the website states. “Oil and gas revenues from federal lands in New Mexico accounted for $376 million, or nearly 25 percent of total oil and gas revenue to the state. Overall, oil and natural gas is responsible for more than 100,000 jobs, and New Mexico ranks fifth among states in oil production and eighth in natural gas.”
Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press and John R. Moses of the Daily Times contributed to this report.