Feds roll back methane capture rules in oil and gas fields

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times
In this March 25, 2014 file photo, a worker adjusts pipes during a hydraulic fracturing operation at a well pad near Mead, Colorado. The Trump administration is moving to roll back Obama-era rules intended to reduce leaks of climate-changing methane from oil and gas facilities.

FARMINGTON – The Trump Administration made it official Tuesday when it announced a major revision to the Obama-era Methane and Waste Prevention Rule that required energy companies to capture methane at drill sites instead of venting it into the air.

Department of the Interior officials told reporters that the 2016 rule constituted overreach by the federal government and put many low-producing oil and gas well in jeopardy due to expensive equipment that operators would have to install. They said those marginal wells might not pencil out economically with added expenses and might instead be shut down.

The revised rule becomes effective 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register.

“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,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in a statement released before the press conference.

“The Trump Administration is committed to innovative regulatory improvement and environmental stewardship," Bernhardt continued, "while appropriately respecting the clear and distinct authorities of the States, Tribes, as well as the direction we receive from Congress.

In this Feb. 25, 2015, file photo, a gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D. The Interior Department is moving to delay an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Officials cited Executive Order 13771, Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs, Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3349, American Energy Independence, issued March 29, 2017, as the driving forces behind the rule change.

Bernhardt told reporters that under the Trump Administration’s doctrine of energy independence it is in the national interest to “promote clean and safe development of our energy resources” and get rid of cumbersome and burdensome regulations that stop resource development and hamper job creation.

The move comes a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed weakening a similar rule for emissions from public and private lands.

"We're for clean air and water, but at the same time, we're for reasonable regulations," Bernhardt told reporters.

Bernhardt and other Interior officials were unable to say how much the new rule would impact methane emissions. The prior regulation would have cut emissions by up to 180,000 tons a year. When asked by a reporter for a comparison of the amounts of methane released under the revised rules as opposed to the 2016 rules, officials said those figures are not available but will be published later.

Mixed reactions

Reactions rolled out well before the afternoon conference convened, with praise from the oil and gas industry and opposition from environmental groups and both U.S. senators from New Mexico.

New Mexico’s leading oil and gas association called the changes a win for public education and other areas of state government funded by oil and gas revenues.

"Today, the United States Bureau of Land Management published a revision to the Waste Prevention Rule that will eliminate duplication and cut red tape for New Mexico’s oil and natural gas producers," the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association stated in a press release.

“Safely and responsibly producing oil and natural gas is a priority for all operators in New Mexico, and that includes capturing as much methane as possible,” NMOGA Executive Director Ryan Flynn said Tuesday morning in the release. “Methane emissions are falling because energy producers are leading the way in developing and implementing new technologies to reduce the footprint of operations and improve gas capture.” 

The association’s release cited EPA data that says “oil and natural gas methane emissions nationally have fallen 16.3 percent from 1990-2015, while oil production is up 28 percent and natural gas production has increased by 52 percent. In New Mexico, methane emissions in the San Juan Basin have dropped an astonishing 47 percent and fallen 6 percent in the Permian Basin, as state oil production in has climbed 104 percent and natural gas production has increased by 1 percent.”

“Across the board, every producer wants to protect our environment and capture as much methane as possible. Innovation and responsible regulation is the key to getting it done,” Flynn said. “The revision of the BLM Waste Prevention Rule will allow producers to continue to focus on finding new solutions and technologies to drive further reductions in methane emissions.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) had fought against the administration’s use of the Congressional Review Act to make the changes.

Sen. Tom Udall

“Today’s rollback of the Methane Waste and Prevention Rule is another egregious giveaway to irresponsible polluters,” Udall said in a release. “BLM’s own analysis found that scrapping the methane rule would lead to more than $1 billion in wasted natural gas and pollution. This wasteful decision will hit New Mexico the hardest, where royalty resources are sorely needed, and where a methane cloud the size of the Delaware is hovering over the Four Corners region.”

Udall cited years of stakeholder talks and said the methane rule as it stood before revision didn’t negatively impact the oil and gas industry.

“Once again, the Trump administration is doing the bidding of a handful of corporate polluters and ignoring the voices of regular people in the West and around the country,” Udall said. “With federal leadership failing under the Trump administration, states like New Mexico and responsible natural gas producers must step up and act to stop methane emissions on their own, or natural gas risks losing out in the future clean energy economy.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who led a bipartisan Senate group who successfully voted down an effort to repeal the Obama-era BLM methane waste reduction rule last year, was also critical.

"Once again, the Trump administration is showing its true colors through a short-sighted policy decision that willfully ignores accepted science,” Heinrich said. “We have a moral obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate our contributions to climate change." 

Marginal wells at risk

The Department of the Interior’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Katharine MacGregor spelled out the interests the government has in keeping marginal oil and gas wells producing on public lands.

She said federal onshore energy production on public lands, which is an important priority to the Trump administration, accounts for 5 percent of domestic oil production and 9 percent domestic gas production, bringing in $1.9 billion for many western states and local communities.

She said the newly-revised rule recognizes that “marginal well production,” those low-producing wells that are too expensive to retrofit, account for 70 percent of the wells on public lands – about 69,000 wells. 

She said the retroactive nature of the 2016 rule could lead to abandoned wells. 

She said the revisions also recognize the important roles states and tribes play in reducing emissions.

As for existing rules, MacGregor noted that 10 states that were reviewed had venting and flaring rules already on the books.

She noted that the review process drew 600,000 comments, “a vast array of comment across the board on this rule.”

The Environmental Defense Fund, which released its its own study in June finding that methane levels are considerably higher than the EPA reports, said the new rules will cost more than they save.

“Secretary Zinke is once again putting the interests of the most poorly operated oil and gas companies ahead of the American taxpayer,” said Matt Watson, EDF's associate vice president for energy. “By his agency’s own analysis, this move will cost more than 299 billion cubic feet in wasted natural gas, representing lost revenue for local needs like roads and schools and more pollution for impacted communities.”

EDF said Tuesday in a release that more than "$2 billion of American taxpayer owned natural gas has been wasted through leaks or intentional venting and flaring from public lands since 2013. However, instead of moving to cut this waste, Secretary Zinke today finalized a rule that would eliminate key components of standards that address this problem.

The Trump administration is also moving to eliminate the EPA's methane rule.

"If these proposals were to be successful, the result would be a weak federal framework that would reduce oil and gas methane emissions by no more than about three percent by 2025, according to EDF’s initial analysis," the group said in a press release.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.