Congress’ repeal of Obama methane rule will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions

Repealing the methane rule will waste $330 million in taxpayer-owned natural gas and cost.

A gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown
A gas flare is seen at a natural gas processing facility near Williston, N.D. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Friday to pass a resolution to undo a measure that would cut air pollution, prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars, and curb climate change-causing pollution.

The Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste prevention rule aims to limit venting, flaring, and leaking of methane — the main component in natural gas — from oil and gas operations on public lands. The House is seeking to use the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule, in what many see as a continued escalation of the most significant congressional attack on environmental rules and standards in American history.

Repealing the rule is expected to result in the waste of $330 million in taxpayer-owned gas annually, and reduce direct payments to the public by $800 million over the next decade, analysis shows.

“Those in Congress working to overturn guidelines that will reduce methane pollution would be taking money away from American taxpayers and removing protections for Americans’ health and the environment,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement.

“More than $1.5 billion in natural gas has been pointlessly burned and sent into the air since 2013,” Williams said. “It defies common sense for Congress to allow companies to waste our resources and ditch basic safeguards limiting the release of harmful methane pollution.”

Between 2009 and 2015, oil and gas producers on public and Indian lands vented, flared, or leaked an estimated 462 billion cubic feet of natural gas. An ICF International report calculated the value of the lost federal and tribal natural gas resources at an estimated $330 million per year.

In addition, a report by the Western Values Project found that without the rule, taxpayers could conservatively lose almost $800 million in royalties over the next decade from the venting and flaring of natural gas on public lands. These revenues are crucial tax dollars that fund local governments, education programs, and infrastructure projects.

Repeal of the rule could also have significant consequences for public health. When natural gas leaks during production, methane and toxic air pollutants like benzene and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released. By reducing venting and flaring, the rule was expected to reduce VOC emissions by 250,000 to 267,000 tons per year as well. VOC’s are a precursor to ground level ozone, which poses a real threat to children who suffer from asthma and can affect Americans’ daily lives. Nationally, there are more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children under the age of 18 due to ozone smog resulting from oil and gas pollution.

“The Methane Rule will reduce hazardous air pollutants that damage the health of local communities by contributing to increased smog, asthma attacks, and other respiratory ailments,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, wrote in a letter to members of the House. “Methane pollution is also a potent greenhouse gas, and the rule is an important step in reducing our contributions to a changing climate that threatens our health, communities, ecosystems, economy, security, and way of life.”

As a greenhouse gas, methane traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. BLM estimates that the methane waste prevention rule could avoid an estimated 164,000 to 169,000 tons of methane emissions per year — a reduction of about 35 percent, equivalent to eliminating the emissions of at least 924,000 vehicles.

BLM received over 300,000 comments on the rule. which is supported by a wide range of stakeholders, including conservation groups, sportsmen and women, tribal leaders, western congressional delegations, and consumer watchdog groups.

But, the oil and gas industry has long fought against this rule as being “unnecessary” and lacking real benefits. According to a report from Public Citizen, oil and gas opponents of the rule spent over $130 million to influence Congress in the past year.

“Opposition to a particular government regulation should not mean overlooking potential waste, fraud, and abuse at the expense of taxpayers,” said Ryan Alexander, President of Taxpayers for Common Sense in an op-ed. “The oil and gas industry argues that companies, not the BLM, should decide when to pay a royalty on gas that is lost during drilling. Taxpayers own this resource, and it is insulting and irresponsible that we would defer to the oil and gas industry to tell us when it will pay for it.”

The House is using a rare measure to repeal this rule called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which allows Congress to revoke rules issued by the executive branch within 60 legislative days of their finalization. Before this month, only one rule had ever been overturned using the CRA — a workplace safety rule that was implemented in 2000 by the Clinton Administration and overturned in 2001.

“We applaud the House of Representatives’ attention to this important matter and ask that all members of the House support this resolution when it is considered on the floor,” American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerrard wrote in a letter to Congress. “We know that the exploration and production of federal oil and natural gas will further enhance U.S. economic and national security, and that a forward-thinking energy policy that prioritizes and grows federal production will benefit all Americans.”

CRA resolutions cannot be filibustered and require only a simple majority to pass in both chambers. If a rule is disapproved using the Congressional Review Act, a “substantially similar” rule cannot be issued unless Congress passes new legislation.

Update: This piece has been updated to reflect Friday’s vote.

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.