Feds put brakes on methane regulation

A flare burns at an oil and gas drilling site southeast of Farmington. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

The Trump administration has dealt its largest blow yet to Obama-era oil and gas drilling regulations, announcing one rule requiring operators to curb methane pollution won’t take effect until at least 2019 and that another methane rule is being suspended indefinitely.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, published notice Wednesday that a methane rule for drilling on federal and tribal land will be put on hold until litigation challenging the regulation has been resolved in court.

The notice came less than 24 hours after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that its implementation of a methane rule for operators on private land will be stayed for two years to give the agency time to reconsider the regulation and solicit additional public comment. The EPA had issued a 90-day hold in June.

The administration’s actions on the methane rules are significant to New Mexico because of the state’s large oil and gas industry and because a large cloud of methane, which has been tied to climate change and public health damage, hangs over the Four Corners region.

Oil and gas industry groups have fought the methane rules in court and in the political arena, saying the regulations would kill jobs and stymie the economy.

“Both rules vastly exceeded federal authority. … The actions today by the agencies are a first step to correcting that federal regulatory overreach,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.

Sgamma said the oil and gas industry has reduced methane emissions by 19 percent while increasing production by more than 50 percent in the past three decades. “We achieved that success by technological innovation, without federal regulation,” she said.

Environmental groups criticized the administration for bending to the will of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of public health and the environment, calling it a new low for the government of President Donald Trump.

“Suspending this rule will deprive our schools of critical royalty revenue and lead to dirty air, increasing asthma rates amongst our children,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

Supporters of the rules have said the requirements that drillers on government land capture more methane gas, which is the main constituent of natural gas, would lead to more royalties being paid to states and the federal government.

In the Federal Register notice of its action, the EPA said, “The environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action may have a disproportionate effect on children. … Any impacts on children’s health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited.”

The EPA said it will put the rule on hold for two years to give the agency “sufficient time to propose, take public comment, and issue a final action” in its review of the regulation. The EPA received 900,000 public comments before the rule was completed in 2016.

The EPA said the stay will give the agency time to answer questions that have been raised since the rule was made final and “provide clarity and certainty for the public and the regulated community.”

After the methane rule for the Bureau of Land Management was issued by the Obama administration in the fall, oil and gas groups and some Western states filed suit challenging the regulation, arguing the rule is arbitrary, capricious and exceeds the agency’s authority.

The Interior Department, in its Federal Register notice, said the methane rule, which had been set to take effect in January, will be put on hold until the litigation is resolved. The agency said drillers should not have to comply with the regulation given the legal uncertainty.

The House voted this year to use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the BLM rule, but the Senate narrowly rejected the repeal.

Trump has ordered agencies to review all regulations that “potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources.”

Alexandra Merlino, executive director of the Partnership for Responsible Business, said that the “BLM should respect the Senate’s vote and the will of the people by upholding the rule.”

But Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said, “Operators and producers in New Mexico have confidence moving forward for the next two years that this is not something that will hamstring production and stand in the way of developing resources in a safe and responsible way.”

Environmental groups last week filed a lawsuit challenging the stay of the EPA’s methane rule.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.