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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