In Anti-Regulation Push, Congress Set to Stamp Out Gas-Waste Rule

Advocates say it would bring in more money for the country and companies, but industry wants it gone.

FILE - In this June 25, 2012 file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa. With two months left in President Barack Obama’s term, his administration issued a rule Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016, intended to clamp down on oil companies that burn off natural gas on public lands.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Feb. 2, 2017, 8 p.m.

In a cam­paign to over­turn Obama-era reg­u­la­tions, con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are wad­ing in­to the battle over how to make nat­ur­al gas-drilling clean­er for the en­vir­on­ment.

The House is set to vote Fri­day on a res­ol­u­tion to dis­ap­prove of a Bur­eau of Land Man­age­ment rule to lim­it the amount of meth­ane be­ing re­leased in­ten­tion­ally or ac­ci­dent­ally from gas pro­duc­tion on fed­er­al lands. The rule, fi­nal­ized in Decem­ber, seeks to lower the rate that gas is ven­ted or burned off.

The Sen­ate has not an­nounced when it would bring up the res­ol­u­tion, one of sev­er­al to over­turn reg­u­la­tions fi­nal­ized in the fi­nal months of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. The Sen­ate is fit­ting their res­ol­u­tions in between votes on Cab­in­et nom­in­ees, in­clud­ing an up­com­ing vote on a res­ol­u­tion over­turn­ing a rule re­quir­ing dis­clos­ure of oil-com­pany pay­ments to for­eign gov­ern­ments. Thir­teen Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans co­sponsored the up­per cham­ber’s res­ol­u­tion, which is ex­pec­ted to pass.

Meth­ane, a byproduct of nat­ur­al gas, is a power­ful green­house gas that traps about 25 times as much heat as car­bon di­ox­ide. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has worked to cut meth­ane emis­sions amid the frack­ing boom, in­clud­ing an agree­ment with Canada to cut emis­sions from the oil-and-gas sec­tor by 40 to 45 per­cent of 2012 levels by 2025 (un­der the Trump White House, it’s un­likely that ac­tion would con­tin­ue in earn­est).

The BLM rule was meant to ad­dress a spe­cif­ic source of meth­ane emis­sions, when com­pan­ies will either re­lease or burn off ex­cess gas when there’s not suf­fi­cient in­fra­struc­ture to get it to the mar­ket. The rule — which only ap­plies to wells on fed­er­al land — also asks man­u­fac­tur­ers to look for and re­place leaks in pipelines and throughout the ex­trac­tion pro­cess.

A 2010 Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice re­port found that some 40 per­cent of the gas be­ing re­leased from fed­er­al lands was cap­tur­able, and could in­crease fed­er­al roy­alty pay­ments by $23 mil­lion a year. All told, 462 bil­lion cu­bic feet of nat­ur­al gas were lost between 2009 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al es­tim­ates, enough to power 6 mil­lion homes a year.

A 2015 ana­lys­is by the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund es­tim­ated that the equi­val­ent of more than $300 mil­lion in gas was lost from fed­er­al and tri­bal lands every year.

In a hear­ing Wed­nes­day that fea­tured Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute pres­id­ent Jack Ger­ard, Sen. Tom Ud­all pushed back on the “ag­gress­ive in­dustry lob­by­ing cam­paign to do away with BLM’s meth­ane rule.”

“But re­peal does not hold up un­der scru­tiny, if the pub­lic in­terest is con­sidered,” Ud­all said. “Eras­ing this rule would res­ult in waste of tax­pay­er re­sources and dol­lars, hinder job growth in a new and grow­ing sec­tor, and pose a pub­lic-health haz­ard.”

Crit­ics have said that BLM’s ef­forts to lim­it the emis­sions were too re­strict­ive and costly, even con­sid­er­ing the po­ten­tial sav­ings. API has ar­gued that re­stric­tions like this were con­trib­ut­ing to a years-long down­turn on drilling on fed­er­al land, and that the cost of in­stalling new tech­no­logy and re­port­ing leaks out­weighs the po­ten­tial be­ne­fits.

Scott Kid­well, vice pres­id­ent of gov­ern­ment af­fairs for the drill­er Concho Re­sources, said in a let­ter to Bish­op that the rule “would dis­rupt ex­ist­ing oil and gas op­er­a­tions and de­ter in­vest­ment in new ex­plor­a­tion and de­vel­op­ment, jeop­ard­iz­ing cur­rent jobs, im­ped­ing new hir­ing, and re­du­cing vi­tally needed eco­nom­ic activ­ity and tax rev­en­ues.”

Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works chair­man John Bar­rasso said BLM “should use its lim­ited re­sources to per­mit nat­ur­al-gas pipelines on fed­er­al lands in a timely man­ner,” rather than work­ing on meth­ane.

But the broad scope of the CRA means that the In­teri­or De­part­ment would not have the au­thor­ity to is­sue an equi­val­ent rule without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al. Even with EPA rules on meth­ane emis­sions (al­though EPA only fi­nal­ized rules for new and mod­i­fied wells, not ex­ist­ing ones, and the agency could un­wind those reg­u­la­tions un­der Trump) and some ac­tion on state level, sup­port­ers say the loss of any BLM ac­tion would be too drastic.

“The prob­lem with a CRA is that it’s a sledge­ham­mer,” said Mark Brown­stein, vice pres­id­ent for EDF’s Cli­mate & En­ergy Pro­gram. “If Con­gress and the new ad­min­is­tra­tion want to help states lead, a bet­ter ap­proach would be to work with the ex­ist­ing BLM policy frame­work and per­haps make modi­fic­a­tions that would ease the syn­chron­iz­a­tion of state and fed­er­al policies—giv­ing states the op­por­tun­ity and in­cent­ives to lead, and provid­ing a fed­er­al back­stop when they don’t.”

The BLM rules were meant to mir­ror ones set up in Col­or­ado (which lacks a rule on flar­ing) and Wyom­ing; and Cali­for­nia is poised to in­sti­tute a com­par­able rule on leaks and vent­ing, so com­pan­ies in those drilling-rich states are already set to deal with waste rules. Al­ex­an­dra Teitz, a former policy ana­lyst for BLM who worked on the rule be­fore leav­ing the agency in Janu­ary, told a pan­el of House Demo­crats this week that the agency tried to ease in its lim­its and con­sider ex­ist­ing state rules in writ­ing its own reg­u­la­tions.

But as Con­gress flexes the CRA for the first time since 2001, stake­hold­ers are warn­ing that it may be too ex­treme for rules like this, es­pe­cially giv­en that it would seem to stomp out BLM’s work on simple meth­ane leaks.

“The CRA is touted as a tool for Con­gress to ex­ert con­trol over un­au­thor­ized, un­ne­ces­sary, or un­reas­on­able agency reg­u­la­tion,” Teitz said. “The Waste Pre­ven­tion Rule is none of these.”

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