WASHINGTON — With two months left in President Barack Obama’s term, his administration issued a rule Tuesday intended to clamp down on oil companies that burn off natural gas on public lands.
The new rule seeks to reduce waste and harmful methane emissions as part of a strategy to address climate change. It has been applauded by environmentalists nationwide, and has wide support from tribal leaders, businesses, religious groups and Democratic congressional delegates in New Mexico, which has one of the highest concentrations of atmospheric methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But a new Republican administration under President-elect Donald Trump could reconsider the rule or even scrap it.
Trump has said he will seek to sharply increase oil and gas drilling on federal lands and said on the campaign trail that restrictions supported by Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would hurt energy-producing Western states.
The Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America have already challenged the rule, filing a joint lawsuit Tuesday in a federal court in Wyoming that says the rule oversteps congressional authority.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association and New Mexico State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn also have said they oppose the rule.
The oil industry has argued that new regulations are not needed for methane because the industry already has a financial incentive to capture and sell natural gas. Methane emissions have been reduced by 21 percent since 1990 even as production has boomed, according to the Western Energy Alliance.
Energy companies frequently “flare” or burn off vast supplies of natural gas at drilling sites because it makes less money than oil. A government report said an estimated 40 percent of the gas being flared or vented could be captured economically and sold.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the new rule updates 30-year-old drilling regulations to meet modern standards and ensure that natural gas is used to power the economy — not wasted by being burned into the atmosphere. The rule is set to take effect in mid-January — days before Obama leaves office.
“This rule to prevent waste of our nation’s natural gas supplies is good government, plain and simple,” Jewell said in a statement. “We are proving that we can cut harmful methane emissions that contribute to climate change, while putting in place standards that make good economic sense for the nation.”
Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement that the rule “will force the oil and gas industry to accept its responsibilities to local communities, to taxpayers, and to our climate. Now we will begin the hard work of defending the rule and making sure the rule is implemented and enforced to fulfill its promise.”
In a joint statement, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, all New Mexico Democrats, said, “These new rules will allow us to cut waste in half so we can use that saved natural gas to power our economy, and the additional revenue to invest in schools, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. And less waste means less smog and healthier people for generations to come.”
The New Mexico Partnership for Responsible Business and the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commercealso issued statements in support of the regulations, saying they were a long time coming.
James Jimenez, director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said the rule was a huge step forward for the health of New Mexico’s families and children.
But congressional Republicans vowed to overturn the rule, calling it a “midnight regulation” that will drive away jobs from federal land in the West — although the effort would likely take months to complete.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a letter to Obama that lawmakers will review all regulations issued in the next two months and overturn them if appropriate.
Under the new rule, energy companies that drill on 245 million acres of public land, mostly in the West, will be required to capture natural gas that can be used to generate power for millions of homes and businesses. Between 2009 and 2014, enough natural gas was lost through venting, flaring and leaks to power more than 5 million homes for a year, Jewell said.
The new rule also should generate tens of millions of dollars a year that can be returned to taxpayers, tribes and states while reducing pollution, Jewell said.
The rule, developed by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, will require oil and gas producers to limit the rate of flaring at oil wells on public and tribal lands, periodically inspect their operations for leaks and replace outdated equipment that vents large quantities of gas into the air.
Most of the gas being burned at drilling sites is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is about 25 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, although it does not stay in the air as long. Methane emissions make up about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to government estimates.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the new rule “will conserve an important domestic resource, improve air quality, lower asthma attacks and slow climate change,” all while protecting taxpayers.
Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Rebecca Moss contributed to this report.