A Bureau of Land Management decision to delay methane regulations was “untethered to evidence,” a federal court in California ruled late Thursday, bringing the controversial rules for oil and gas operations on federal land back into play.
The U.S. District Court, Northern District of California also denied the agency’s request for a venue change from California to Wyoming.
The Department of the Interior is in the process of rewriting the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane and Waste Prevention rule, and had halted implementation of the Obama-era regulation that seeks to limit leaks and flaring of natural gas on public land during that period.
This is the second time a California court has shot down Interior’s attempts to halt implementation of the requirements, while the U.S. Senate failed its own attempt to nix the methane rule last year.
What the rule means on the ground for Wyoming operators isn’t clear. Many larger companies, like ExxonMobil have said they are prepared for compliance. Smaller operators in the state have reported mixed degrees of preparation, in previous interviews with the Star-Tribune.
“You can’t get compliance overnight,” said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
The rules have also been in limbo since they went into effect in January of last year as the Interior tried through various ways to suspend or undo the rules.
The Bureau of Land Management, which has a number of oil and gas groups intervening on its side in the case, argued much the same, but did not convince the California court.
“Any time you have a court try to rule from the bench, it’s usually not a good thing,” Hinchey said.
The Petroleum Association of Wyoming opposed the Bureau of Land Management rules, arguing that they overstep the bounds of the BLM’s authority and would unduly burden operators, particularly smaller ones, in the state.
Much of Wyoming’s production is from older wells, where the cost of complying with these rules wouldn’t make economic sense, Hinchey said.
The federal court addressed the cost issue in its response as well, saying the burden on even small business would likely be marginal compared to the effects of delaying the rule.
“Weighed against the likely environmental injury, which cannot be undone, the financial cost of compliance are not as significant as the increased gas emissions, public health harms, and pollution,” the court wrote.
Citizen responses to the BLM rules have been varied in Wyoming, where oil and gas is ubiquitous and its role in fueling the state from local jobs to public agency funding is undeniable. However, according to the most recent survey form Colorado College on Western conservation, 77 percent of the Wyomingites polled favored rules that require equipment and technology to reduce methane waste on public lands, key provisions of the methane rule that caused alarm in the oil and gas industry.
Wyoming has its own standards on industry that in some regions of the state mirror the controversial methane rule. In the Upper Green River Basin, a mix of geography and heavy oil and gas activity had eroded air quality to the point that Wyoming upped its requirements.
Operators in that area have high tech equipment to check for fugitive emissions and companies reduce activities on days when there is a high risk of ground level ozone.
Other regions of the state have more moderate restrictions.
For environmental groups, the court decision was another win. They argue that the Bureau of Land Management has the authority to restrict waste of natural resources, and the courts continue to rule in its favor.
“The Trump Administration and Sec. (Ryan) Zinke are 0-4 in their attempts to do away with this rule,” said Jon Goldstein, senior energy policy manager with the Environmental Defense Fund. “The courts and Congress have repeatedly supported these waste reduction measures. Now this court has done the same.”
The administration is not doing industry any favors by insisting that the methane rules be undone, he said.
The court’s decision is another piece of evidence that supporters of the rule will use to fight any revision or repeal going forward, Goldstein said.
Thursday’s decision in California states that those supporting the rule had made their case, showing “irreparable injury caused by the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts.”
A call to the Bureau of Land Management on how its officials will carry out compliance in Wyoming was directed to the national office.