Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) announced on Monday that he would vote to overturn a rule that is estimated to prevent the waste of 65 billion cubic feet of natural gas a year and save taxpayers $330 million annually. His decision was based on promises made by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that the Trump administration cannot legally keep.
Portman’s pledged vote makes it more likely that Senate Republicans — as well as the oil and gas industry — will have the 51 votes needed under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to repeal the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) methane waste reduction rule. The rule was established in the waning days of the Obama administration, and thus vulnerable to repeal through CRA by the Republican-controlled Senate.
“More taxpayer-owned natural gas will be wasted on public lands across the West thanks to Senator Portman,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities, via email. “Instead of saving American taxpayers money and ensuring Westerners have clean air to breathe, Senator Portman decided to pay back oil and gas companies who write campaign checks.”
The BLM’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 and tribal lands. The repeal of this rule would allow for the unregulated release of a gas that traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Because taxpayers collect royalties from energy produced on public lands, repealing the rule could reduce direct payments to taxpayers by $800 million over the next decade, according to Western Values Project.
Portman made his decision to support the elimination of the methane rule after receiving a response to a letter he sent to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
“I believe that the Interior Department should do more to prevent methane venting and flaring on federal lands,” Portman said in a statement announcing his decision. “The Secretary of the Interior has made clear in a letter to me that the Department is committed to acting on this important issue going forward, and he has outlined specific actions it would take to do that.”
Zinke’s letter assured Portman that the Interior Department would “continue to have the authority… To update its policies to reduce methane waste and will continue to regulate venting, [and] flaring” of natural gas.
But Zinke’s promise is at best, uninformed, and at worst a flat out-lie. What makes the Congressional Review Act different from other bills (besides the fact it needs only a simple 51-vote majority to pass), is that when a rule is repealed under the act, a “substantially similar” rule cannot be issued in the future unless Congress passes new legislation allowing it.
A group of law professors from across the country have argued that a repeal of BLM’s rule using the CRA would “greatly impair” Interior’s ability to ever regulate the waste of natural gas in the future. In a letter to Senate leadership, the 42 professors argue that “using the blunt instrument of the CRA to overturn the existing rule might make a nice headline, but it could also forever insulate the industry from meaningful, effective regulation on this important subject and tie up the Interior Department in years of litigation.”
They also warn that because the CRA has only ever been used one time before this year, no court has interpreted how broad the CRA’s limiting effects might be. Provisions within BLM’s rule, such as addressing natural gas lost from leaks, would likely be challenged in court by industry.
Senate Republicans have struggled to get the votes to repeal the BLM methane rule, especially after Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) publicly opposed the rule. Senators have had a tough time convincing their constituents to get behind the repeal of what many see as a commonsense waste prevention rule. For example, in Portman’s home state of Ohio the conservative Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions found that 80 percent of voters support regulations on methane waste.
A CRA repeal of the methane rule has already passed in the House and a vote is expected in the Senate on Wednesday, shortly before the clock runs out on Congress’ ability to scrap Obama-era rules using the CRA. The 2017 Congress and President Donald Trump have already used the CRA to eliminate 13 Obama-era regulations.
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.