Obama administration targets wasted revenue in new oil and gas rule

It has already been targeted by the new head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogas
CREDIT: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogas

The Obama administration on Tuesday finalized a rule to reduce the massive amount of leaking methane from oil and gas operations on public land, prompting an immediate response from Republicans who intend on reversing it.

The new Methane and Waste Prevention Rule will decrease flaring — burning off methane at the site of extraction — by half. It will also increase inspection and reporting requirements, restrict venting from storage tanks, and clarify when royalties are due on lost gas.

“This rule to prevent waste of our nation’s natural gas supplies is good government, plain and simple,” Dept. of Interior Sec. Sally Jewell said in a statement. “We are proving that we can cut harmful methane emissions that contribute to climate change, while putting in place standards that make good economic sense for the nation.”

States, tribes, and federal taxpayers lose millions of dollars each year through wasted gas, according to a 2010 government report. The amount of natural gas lost between 2009 and 2015 would have been enough to serve more than 6 million households for a year.

“Natural gas is a valuable American resource, but when wasted into the air it causes dangerous pollution,” Environmental Defense Fund president Krupp said in a statement. “Reducing the amount of gas that oil and gas operators release will conserve an important domestic resource, improve air quality, lower asthma attacks, and slow climate change.”

In addition to methane, natural gas and oil and gas operations often release toxic chemicals and compounds, including carcinogens such as benzene. By 2025, children in the United States will experience 750,000 asthma attacks each summer that will be directly attributable to the oil and gas industry, according to the Clean Air Task Force.

The new methane leak rule is one of the key ways the United States could decrease its greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration had a goal of cutting emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent over 2012 levels by 2025. This rule would reduce methane emissions, which account for at least a tenth of the country’s total emissions, by half, according to the Department of the Interior.

Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Although it breaks down faster than CO2, methane traps heat 86 times more effectively over a 20-year period — an increasingly more important metric than the 100-year period many governments use. Over 100 years, methane traps heat at least 26 times more effectively, according to the EPA.

BLM director Neil Kornze said that operators would be able to comply with the rule through “better planning” and “affordable technology.”

It is the first national rule to target methane from both new and existing sources. The EPA previously issued a rule limiting leaks from new oil and gas infrastructure (on any property), and is in the process of developing a rule that would cover existing operations.

But the industry has already indicated that it will fight back against regulations seeking to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint — and, facing the prospect of the upcoming Trump administration, they are more hopeful than ever. Jack Girard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies on behalf of the oil and natural gas industries, has said that fighting methane regulations will be a “top priority” for the group.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the next chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Tuesday that overturning the regulation will be a top priority in the upcoming congressional session, the Hill reported. “The Republican majority on Congress will not let this rule stand. We will work with President-elect Trump to revoke this rule either administratively or through the use of the Congressional Review Act.”

Under the Congressional Review Act, which covers this rule, Congress only needs a simple majority to throw it out. Yet despite Barrasso leading the charge here, 7 out of 10 voters in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Utah support reigning in methane leaks.

Given Trump’s overwhelming focus on reducing federal debt and taxpayer waste — and his numerous statements against lobbying interests — it will be interesting to see if, as president, he backs API and “the Republican majority” on this issue.

Under the Mineral Leasing Act, the Bureau of Land Management has a responsibility to reduce waste of a taxpayer resource. According to some estimates, wasted natural gas cost the public some $330 million in 2013 alone.

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the lax previous rules had “led to the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas from federal lands” that, in reality, are owned by taxpayers. “It is BLM’s job to prevent the waste of natural gas from federal lands and to ensure that taxpayers are fairly compensated for these resources,” she said in a statement.

Madeleine Foote, from the League of Conservation Voters, said her group is “committed to defending [the rule], along with all other the pieces of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.”

Environmental groups told ThinkProgress this week that litigation will be a critical tool to stop the rollback of environmental regulation under the Republican-led Congress and President-elect Donald Trump.

The methane rule will be phased in over time and is the first update to venting regulations in more than three decades.