Trump's Interior, EPA Hit the Pause Button on Methane Rules

An oil and gas trade group described the methane rule as "a vast overreach by the prior administration."
An oil and gas trade group described the methane rule as "a vast overreach by the prior administration." Courtesy of WildEarth Guardians
A federal judge refused to stop it. So did the U.S. Senate. So the Trump administration decided to take the initiative and hit the brakes, delaying for two years implementation of one of the most hotly contested environmental measures devised by the Obama White House — a pair of rules intended to limit methane emissions by oil and gas operations.

In separate but coordinated actions, the Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this week that it would suspend any action on new limits for methane pollution from oil and gas wells. This came on the heels of notice from the Bureau of Land Management that it, too, would delay adoption of new standards that would reduce the amount of methane that could be vented or burned off on drilling leases on public and tribal lands.

The decision was hailed by energy trade groups, including the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which had unsuccessfully sought a preliminary injunction against the BLM rule in a Wyoming federal court last January. Just a few weeks ago the effort to stall the new methane standards met another defeat in the Senate, which narrowly rejected legislation that would have killed the rule.

In a prepared statement, WEA president Kathleen Sgamma said that both rules "vastly exceeded federal authority." She added that gas companies have already reduced methane emissions substantially over the years while increasing production, without the heavy hand of added federal regulations: "The Trump administration is correcting that overreach from the prior administration, thereby saving jobs and supporting American energy independence."

Environmental groups castigated Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and EPA chief Scott Pruitt for ignoring strong public support for the new rules. "Methane waste seriously and urgently threatens our climate, our pocketbook, and public health," said Western Environmental Law Center executive director Erik Schlenker-Goodrich in a press release. "If there was any doubt who Secretary Zinke serves in his position, it's now abundantly clear it's not the American public."

Supporters of the rule have argued that it would promote health benefits, as well as direct financial savings for the government, by taking 180,000 tons of methane out of the atmosphere each year. Forcing oil and gas producers to capture more methane would also result in up to a $13 million boost in royalty payments due to the government for product that now gets "flared" away.

Colorado's own regulations regarding methane emissions, considered among the most restrictive in the country, were implemented with broad support and input from the industry in 2013. At the time, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimated that the new requirements would reduce emissions of hydrocarbons and other volatile organic compounds (VOC) from oil and gas production by about a third, or 92,000 tons a year — more than the total VOC spewed by all the state's cars.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast