Tribal, environmental groups sue over methane rule delay

The Bureau of Land Management rule had already been finalized.

A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site. CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site. CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The Trump administration has made rolling back environmental protections one of its primary — and arguably most successful — initiatives. But at every turn, the federal agencies in charge of these rules are being challenged in the courts.

A coalition of tribal and environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit Monday, challenging the administration’s two-year stay of the methane waste reduction rule, a regulation that required oil and gas producers on public lands to monitor and fix methane leaks.

The rule was expected to result in $800 million more in taxpayer revenue over the next decade, while reducing $330 million worth of wasted natural gas.

“The stay harms Plaintiffs (collectively, Conservation and Tribal Citizen Groups) and other members of the public by reducing royalty payments and allowing waste of public natural gas resources and excessive air pollution that would otherwise be controlled under the Rule,” the suit alleges. California and New Mexico have also challenged the delay in court.

The Bureau of Land Management announced it would delay implementation of the rule in June, after the GOP-controlled Senate failed in an attempt to revoke the rule legislatively.

Opponents to the delay say that it was done to favor the oil and gas industry — against the financial and health interests of the American people.

“As an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota, I have seen firsthand the impacts of rampant oil and gas development on our people,” Lisa Deville of Fort Berthold Protectors of Water & Earth Rights (POWER) said in a statement. “Without this rule, we will lose money as a result of waste and our air will be dirtier. The Trump administration is placing energy interests above its moral and trust obligations to tribal people.”

BLM issued the final rule in January, but it has been the target of industry opponents since it was proposed. Oil and gas groups called it a “clear overreach of federal authority” that would have “damaging consequences” for the industry and local communities. The rule is being challenged in court. In January, a judge denied an industry request for an injunction.

Now, opponents to the agency’s attempted delay point out that an agency cannot unilaterally revoke a rule that has been finalized. According to the Administrative Act, the agency must go through the formal rulemaking process at this point.

“The Department [of the Interior] published a notice in the Federal Register suspending parts of the Rule under a novel theory of administrative law. This action seems impossible to square with unapologetic admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. It also seems impossible to square with the Administrative Procedure Act,” Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after the suspension was announced. (Zinke has repeatedly referred to himself as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist.)

In fact, last week, a court ruled that the administration could not unilaterally roll back another Obama-era rule that had already been finalized. The court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency could not suspend a rule limiting methane leaks from new oil and gas operations. Methane, which makes up 80 percent of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“Trump and his administration cannot blatantly ignore the law just to benefit polluters at the expense of everyone else,” Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley, said in a statement. “Compliance with public health rules cannot be indefinitely delayed while the Trump Administration and bad actors within the industry try to undo them.”