Two states sue over Trump administration suspending a rule that would save taxpayers $330 million

Interior Secretary Zinke’s latest gift to the oil and gas industry might be illegal.

Chris Velasquez watches an oil field truck drive by as he stands next to a pumpjack on BLM land near where his cattle graze near Blanco, N.M. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Watson
Chris Velasquez watches an oil field truck drive by as he stands next to a pumpjack on BLM land near where his cattle graze near Blanco, N.M. CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Watson

Attorneys general from California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit Wednesday over Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s postponement of the Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste prevention rule. The suit holds that the Interior Department’s failure to implement the rule will cost California taxpayers substantial royalty payments and furthers the Trump administration’s attack on public health.

“President Trump should put the health of the American people over the profits of private companies,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “This is a commonsense rule that both helps our children breathe cleaner air and protects our planet. It should be implemented as is legally required. We refuse to let blatant violations of the law go unchallenged.”

BLM’s methane rule seeks to reduce the wasteful release into the atmosphere of methane — the primary component of natural gas — from oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands. Studies show the rule would save $330 million worth of taxpayer-owned gas annually and would result in $800 million in direct payments to the public over the next decade.

A ruling earlier this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals on a similar issue regarding an EPA methane regulation could provide a clue for where this lawsuit is going. In a 2–1 ruling, the court struck down an attempt by EPA to delay implementation of new emission standards on oil and gas wells, arguing that EPA could not delay an effective date even as they seek to rewrite the regulation.

The Interior Department announced in June it would delay implementation of BLM’s methane waste prevention rule and would, instead, rewrite the rule to be less “burdensome” to the oil and gas industry. This action treads on shaky ground because the rule was already finalized under the Obama administration, and the department is legally obligated to enforce it.

“We are disappointed with your actions to undo this rule,” wrote Senators Cantwell and Udall in a letter to Secretary Zinke concerning his suspension of the rule. “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”.

Interior’s suspension of the rule may indeed be a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, a law which allows an agency postpone the implementation date of a rule that has not taken effect but does not allow for suspending a regulation that is already on the books. Properly reversing an already implemented rule can often take years, given that public comment and notice need to take place.

The courts have already weighed in on this very issue. According to the opinion in Safety-Kleen Corp v. EPA, the Administrative Procedures Act “does not permit the agency to suspend without notice and comment a promulgated rule.”

It appears that Zinke cannot simply refuse to enforce a rule to appease the oil and gas industry.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents the three companies that have the most to gain from repeal of methane regulations, as well as other oil and gas industry groups have led the charge against the rule in both the courts and Congress. Oil and gas interests also donated more than $4.9 million to members of Congress that sponsored a resolution to repeal the rule.

But efforts from the fossil fuel industry and their beneficiaries in Congress to block the rule legislatively and in the courts have already failed.

In January, a judge found that the rule is “unambiguously” within BLM’s authority, has economic and environmental benefits, will not impinge on states’ sovereign interests, and will not cause significant economic burden to states or oil and gas companies. In May, the Senate rejected a bill that would have scrapped the rule entirely.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.