Trump rolls back methane rules for drilling on US lands

In this Feb. 25, 2015, file photo, a gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D.  (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

The Trump administration on Tuesday rolled back an Obama-era rule that forced energy companies to capture methane — a key contributor to climate change that’s released in huge amounts during drilling on U.S. and tribal lands.

A replacement rule from the Interior Department rescinds mandates for companies to reduce gas pollution, which Trump administration officials say already is required by some states.

In Colorado, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet blasted the move to pull back on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rule.

“I’m disappointed to learn that BLM did not listen to the people of our state and went ahead with this rollback even after the Senate rejected it,” the Democrat said, noting the Senate’s narrow rejection last year of a resolution to repeal the methane rule.

“Today’s decision only has downsides for the people of Colorado,” Bennet added. “It will lead to more pollution, waste more natural gas, and decrease revenue for taxpayers. Worst of all, it will put the health of our communities at risk.”

The change could save companies as much as $2 billion in compliance costs over the next decade. It comes a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed weakening a separate methane emissions rule affecting private land and some public lands.

“We’re for clean air and water, but at the same time, we’re for reasonable regulations,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native, told reporters.

Methane is a component of natural gas that’s frequently wasted through leaks or intentional releases during drilling operations. The gas is considered a more potent contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, although it occurs in smaller volumes.

Bernhardt and other Interior officials were unable to immediately say how much the new rule would affect methane emissions. But a U.S. Bureau of Land Management analysis provided to The Associated Press said all the reductions projected to occur under the original 2016 rule were lost with Tuesday’s change.

The prior regulation would have cut methane emissions by as much as 180,000 tons a year. Emissions of potentially hazardous pollutants known as volatile organic compounds, which can cause health problems if inhaled, would have been reduced by up to 80,000 tons a year.

The change could also result in the loss of $734 million in natural gas that would have been recovered over the next decade under the old rule. Those savings would have offset some of the industry’s compliance costs.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico criticized the rollback as a “giveaway to irresponsible polluters.”

Within hours of the administration’s announcement on Tuesday, attorneys general for California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to reinstate the 2016 rule.

“We’ve sued the administration before over the illegal delay and suspension of this rule and will continue doing everything in our power to hold them accountable to our people and planet,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.

An estimated $330 million a year in methane is wasted on federal lands, enough to power about 5 million homes.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said the old rule improperly put the BLM in the role of regulating air quality, which she said should instead be done by the EPA or state agencies.

But Jesse Prentice-Dunn of the Denver-based conservation advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said the rollback of the rule “marks another loss for Western communities at the hands of President Trump, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and their oil industry donors. Because of this decision, oil and gas drillers can continue releasing methane into the air without accountability at the expense of taxpayers and clean air.

“Westerners should be fired up that this administration cares more about padding the wallets of oil executives than it does about safeguarding natural resources owned by all Americans,” Prentice-Dunn added.

“Again and again, the American people have spoken up for these rules that keep our air clean, help our communities stay healthy, and save taxpayers money. But the Trump administration refuses to listen,” said Jessica Goad, deputy director of Denver-based Conservation Colorado. “Colorado has led the way with strong state-based safeguards that will remain in place, but smog and pollution don’t stay within state borders. Coloradans will certainly feel the effects of this harmful and short-sighted rollback.”

The group cited 2018 survey results showing that three out of four Coloradans polled “support rules requiring oil and gas producers to prevent methane waste on public lands.”

The Obama-era rule has been tied up in the courts since its adoption. It was put on hold in April by a federal judge in Wyoming.

Energy companies said it was overly intrusive and that companies already have an economic incentive to capture methane so they can sell it. However, that’s not always practical in fast-growing oil and gas fields, where large volumes of gas are burned off using flares.

Flaring has been a common practice in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico and other states.

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