Flaring

A rig near Douglas is flooded with light as dusk turns to night. The orange glow at right is a gas being flared off.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune

The fate of an Obama-era federal rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas activities was sealed Thursday, at least for now.

The Bureau of Land Management has suspended compliance for oil and gas operators on some aspects of the 2016 methane regulations until 2019.

The methane waste and prevention rule has had its fair share of ups and downs this year. Industry, and states like Wyoming, fought for a court injunction to delay the first compliance date in January, but failed. In the spring, Congress attempted to ax the rules employing a seldom-used law that eliminates last minute actions from a previous administration. They also failed.

Then a court ruled against the Interior Department in October when the agency tried to simply suspend the rule after it was in place.

Wyoming operators have said they were ready to comply with new requirements, like on-the-ground checks for leaks and infrared camera systems. But they were still holding out hope for the rule’s potential elimination.

Thursday’s action appears to have cleared up the uncertainty.

The BLM is currently working to revise or eliminate the rule in accordance with the president’s dictate to review or remove federal rules that burden industry development.

“As we strengthen America’s energy independence, we need to make sure that regulations do not unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, or prevent job creation,” Brian Steed, BLM deputy director for policy and programs, said in a statement Thursday.

Environmentalists who’ve been advocating for controls on industry to address methane emissions admonished the administration for its decision Thursday.

“While states are moving forward to implement and strengthen their rules on methane, Secretary (Ryan) Zinke is running backwards,” said Dan Grossman, national director of state programs for the Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement.

The organization is one of the groups arguing that the rules protect taxpayer dollars, as the methane vented or flared from public resources adds up to hundreds of millions in lost revenue every year, they say.

About 87 percent of Wyomingites in the most recent State of the Rockies Conservation of the West poll agreed with the methane restrictions. The state has already placed some of the same provisions contested in the BLM rule in its regulations for pollution rich regions in the state, namely the Upper Green River Basin.

Industry groups that opposed the rule have downplayed the revenue impact, arguing that the leaked or flared gas is not always saleable as it contains more than just methane.

“It is never the desire of any company to waste a valuable product that could otherwise be brought to market and sold to the American consumers,” said Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, in a statement.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said the BLM’s decision proves that the agency doesn’t believe it has the authority to regulate air quality in the first place, a longstanding argument from industry groups.

The delay will be good news for companies that would have had to make costly adjustments complying with the rule despite its long term uncertainty, she said.

“It makes no sense for companies to comply with a rule that is being significantly rewritten,” she said.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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