Court grants industry request to block rule that prevents methane waste

Apr 5, 2018

Gas flaring, New Mexico.

Mason Cummings, The Wilderness Society
On April 4, a federal court in Wyoming halted an Obama-era rule to reduce wasteful leaking, flaring and venting of natural gas from drilling operations on public and tribal lands while the Trump administration reconsiders the rule.

The oil and gas industry and several states sued over the rule several years ago, and the same court rejected their initial attempt to block it.  After two unsuccessful efforts by the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to suspend (or “stay”) the Waste Prevention Rule, the industry groups and their state allies again turned to the court. 

The court ruled in the industry’s favor and ordered the enforcement of key provisions of the Waste Prevention Rule be suspended until BLM finalizes a rule to replace it.

The Waste Prevention Rule was enacted in 2016 after years of deliberation, more than 300,000 written comments overwhelmingly in support of the rule, and public hearings in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and North Dakota. 

“The court’s ruling harms taxpayers, public health, and our climate by setting aside common-sense measures to prevent natural gas waste from drilling operations on our public lands,” said Robin Cooley, an Earthjustice attorney defending the rule in court. “We plan to immediately appeal this decision because the court set aside a duly-promulgated rule without applying the factors required under the law. Although the court considered industry’s interests, it ignored the many benefits to the public of the Waste Prevention Rule, such as increased royalty payments and reduced pollution.” 

“Although we are disappointed with the court's decision to temporarily suspend this common-sense safeguard, the fight for cleaner air and healthier communities is far from over,” said Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign. “The Trump administration may wish to roll back this key clean air protection, but it has no legal basis for doing so, and we continue to believe that the standard must be fully enforced as written. Sierra Club and our allies are exploring all legal options and are confident that BLM’s waste prevention rule will prevail despite today’s ruling and the Trump administration’s reckless assault on our climate and public health.”

“We are disappointed in the Wyoming court’s decision to stay implementation of the BLM’s 2016 methane waste prevention rule,” said Bruce Pendery, litigation and energy policy specialist for The Wilderness Society.  “Americans have been tossed around on a roller-coaster ride since the agency modernized its 40-year-old rule two years ago as opponents, led by some in industry and their allies in the administration, have tried repeatedly to torpedo implementation. After failing four times to slow or stop enforcement, today the opponents of waste prevention got their wish. This decision is bad for taxpayers and needlessly risks the health of communities living near development. We will continue to challenge efforts to halt enforcement and rewrite the rule.”  

“Suspending these safeguards exposes thousands of people to toxic chemicals and allows the industry continue leaking powerful climate pollution without restraint,” said Meleah Geertsma, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Companies are already putting these critical safeguards in place in some Western states, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be doing the same thing on public lands nationwide. We will continue to fight against this administration’s tireless efforts to put the fossil fuel industry above people’s health.”

The rule has been in effect since February, when the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected the Trump administration’s effort to suspend it for one year. Previously, the administration had unilaterally suspended parts of the rule, but that action was struck down by a California court in October.

Last month, industry lawyers petitioned the Wyoming court to suspend the rule.

The rule updates waste regulations that were more than 30 years old and did not reflect the dramatic advances in oil and gas drilling technology or the rapid expansion of drilling operations on public lands in recent years. It saves taxpayers millions of dollars in royalties every year, and reduces harmful cancer-causing and smog-forming pollution. It also reduces pollution from methane, a greenhouse gas 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The rule implements cost-effective strategies used by leading companies to reduce methane waste that already are in place in many states including Colorado and Wyoming. These strategies include requiring companies to monitor wells for leaks, repair faulty equipment, reduce noisy and wasteful flaring, and capture unnecessary natural gas emissions.

The nonprofit law firm Earthjustice represents Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and The Wilderness Society in defending the rule.

Contacts:

Robin Cooley, Earthjustice attorney, 303-996-9611 or rcooley@earthjustice.org

Gabby Brown, Sierra Club, 202-495-3051 or gabby.brown@sierraclub.org

Kate Kiely, NRDC, 212-727-4592 or kkiely@nrdc.org

Bruce Pendery, The Wilderness Society, 435-760-6217 or bruce_pendery@tws.org