Here’s an example of what federal deregulation looks like on public lands

Methane is a powerful pollutant that is wasted from natural gas wells on public lands.

Mason Cummings, TWS

The Trump administration is trying to make good on its promises to get rid of many regulations across the federal government.

The New York Times explored this in a lengthy story this week that examined the special-interest ties of many of the administration’s appointees who are carrying out the often-secretive processes.

One of the regulations in its crosshairs, which dominated this week’s environmental news, is the Environmental Protection Agency’s methane rule, which was the subject of a public hearing on Monday featuring 116 activists speaking in favor of keeping the rule.

But this week also saw a lesser-noticed milestone related to methane, as, on July 10, several conservation and public interest groups, including The Wilderness Society, followed the lead of the Attorneys General of California and New Mexico in suing the Interior Department for attempting to avoid enforcing its own recently finalized methane regulation. This rule was created by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to reduce the amount of natural gas that is commonly wasted on federal and tribal lands through venting, flaring and leaks.

The lawsuit was filed because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed the department to only require industry compliance with certain aspects of BLM’s methane rule, in the Trump administration’s third attempt to apparently avoid implementing the law.

After four years of work to revise a 30-year old rule known to be woefully inadequate to protect taxpayers and the environment—which included gathering input from the industry, receiving more than 300,000 comments, and holding eight public forums—the BLM finalized the rule in November 2016. It requires producers to cut back in how much they vent and flare natural gas and catch and repair leaks, with simple fixes that will reduce the waste of publicly owned natural gas by 40 percent.

But since election night, the oil and gas industry, together with their allies in the administration and Congress, have been trying to get out of complying with the rule every which way they possibly can. When one road ends, the industry pushes its allies to pursue a new path. And if a road doesn’t exist, they just conjure up a new one.

 

Here are all the ways the oil and gas industry, working with the Trump administration and a few allied representatives and senators, is trying to get rid of BLM’s important methane rule.

Attempt #1

Within 30 minutes after BLM’s methane rule was finalized, the oil and gas industry sued the Interior Department, saying that BLM and DOI do not have the authority to regulate waste and the rule would do harm to its interests. A few western states, states, including North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Texas, joined this lawsuit. The industry and its allies demanded an immediate injunction.  

Defeat #1

On January 16, 2017, a U.S. District judge in Wyoming refused to stay the rule, finding that BLM was on solid legal footing in designing the rule and flatly rejecting claims that the costs of compliance to industry and the states “are of ‘such imminence that there is a clear and present need for equitable relief to prevent irreparable harm.’”

The rule went into effect as scheduled on January 17, with immediate requirements for new drilling applications and put in place a schedule of compliance deadlines for existing producers. 

Attempt #2

The industry and their allies then turned to Congress after failing in their legal bid to halt the rule. Industry spent four months attempting to eliminate the rule through the seldom-used Congressional Review Act.

Defeat #2

Despite requiring a simple majority vote, the measure failed in the Senate after three Republicans—Senators Collins, Graham and McCain—crossed party lines in opposition, citing the blunt nature of the CRA and acknowledging Interior’s ability to revise the rule, if needed (rather than rescind it outright with the CRA), which the department had already initiated in late March. 

Attempt #3

On June 14, barely a month after the Senate vote, the Interior Department took matters into its own hands and postponed implementation of the rule. This action belied legal precedent that says agencies cannot stay a rule already in effect without soliciting public comments. And in the official notice it issued about the stay, Interior did not demonstrate that the rule posed a “significant regulatory burden,” as its leaders have been saying

Incredibly, a few days later, in a creative and misleading interpretation of events, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he would enforce parts of the rule without delay, going so far as to say, in response to Sen. Maria Cantwell’s questions, “Ma’am, I do not drag my feet.”

Moreover, on the same day as the Secretary’s testimony (June 20), the Department of Justice requested additional time to prepare and file briefs for the case originally filed by industry in January seeking to block implementation of the final methane rule. This filing clearly laid out the department’s true intentions—to halt any enforcement of the rule while the department figured out how to gut the current rule without having to follow the public comment process required by law.

Defeat #3?

On July 5, the Attorneys General of California and New Mexico sued the Interior Department in U.S. District Court for putting industry interests over the welfare of the citizens of those states.  The legal challenge points out that the department can’t unilaterally stop enforcing laws on the books without going through appropriate procedures, which includes creating an opportunity for public comment. 

On July 10, an unusual coalition of conservation, tribal, and environmental groups including The Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, EarthJustice, Ft. Berthold POWER, and other groups filed their own lawsuit against Interior in the same district court, on the grounds that staying the rule, even in part, violates the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how federal agencies create regulations.

 

Most members of Congress side with the public in support of the rule

Even as the American people have made it clear time and again that the public supports the BLM’s methane rule and other environmental regulations that protect our clean air, water, and health, the Interior Department seems to be listening only to the powerful oil and gas industry

Fortunately, some elected leaders are keeping a watchful eye on these parlor games. 

Democratic Senators Maria Cantwell and Tom Udall did not mince words in issuing a sharp rebuke to Secretary Zinke’s decision to postpone implementation of the rule, writing, “Apart from our disagreements with some of your policies, we are troubled that your agency continues to seek out new ways to circumvent administrative law.” 

And Representative Raul Grijalva sent a letter to Secretary Zinke on June 15 that pointed out that postponing the enforcement of any of the rule’s provisions “without another notice-and-comment period, and with only a cursory rationalization that is in large part based on written requests from oil and gas industry groups, is arbitrary and capricious.”

 

Why it matters

The fight to keep BLM’s methane rule in place is about much more than just the $330 million in natural gas that is needlessly wasted every year.

It is about ensuring that decisions about how the American people’s natural resources are managed includes them—the foundation of our participatory democracy. And it’s about stopping the administration from selling out our public lands to energy companies when they think no one is looking, as if the U.S. were just another kleptocratic petrostate.

We anticipate seeing continued efforts by the Trump administration undermine its own agencies’ authority to regulate industries that can harm the American people and our land, air, and water.

BLM’s methane rule is just one example of how insidious, pervasive, and persistent these efforts truly are—and how they are happening behind closed doors with no accountability and questionable legality.

 

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