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Gas flaring

Flares burn off excess natural gas at a site run by Chesapeake Energy in 2013 east of Douglas. The EPA and BLM announced this week that they would stay compliance on methane emission rules.

Star-Tribune file

Oil and gas companies will not have to comply with federal methane rules for the foreseeable future, the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.

The agencies will put the natural gas rules on hold indefinitely, citing uncertainty surrounding the future of the regulations, which are both contested in court. The rules limit practices like flaring and introduce mandates such as on-the-ground checks for gas leaks.

This is the third try to fight the rules, which industry groups, conservative politicians and oil and gas companies consider federal overreach.

Congress tried and failed to unravel the Bureau of Land Management’s methane rules in May, losing a razor-thin vote in the Senate, when three Republican congressmen defected from the party line. An attempt to delay the BLM rules in court also failed in January, when a federal judge in Casper ruled that a stay on compliance was not justifiable. The legality of the rules, like many of the environmental regulations enacted under the previous presidential administration, face an ongoing battle in court.

However, the methane issue has proved politically difficult. Environmental groups point to research showing popular support for methane leak and flaring rules in places like Wyoming, despite widespread support for the oil and gas industry.

Opponents of the rules say the BLM is overstepping its authority by regulating air quality. That job belongs to the Environmental Protection Agency, they say.

But the news of a stay on BLM rules was preceded by a similar decision on a two-year delay on compliance for aspects of the EPA’s methane rules, which industry argues are punishing. Oil and gas companies don’t want to waste their product, they argue, and the additional cost of buying equipment and training employees in the new rules is unnecessary.

A mandatory EPA survey that would have forced oil and gas operators to self-report emissions, meant as the groundwork for developing further EPA rules on methane sources, was axed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in March. At the time, he said the move was in response to industry’s complaints that the surveys were expensive and punitive. A similar nod to industry concerns was cited in Wednesday’s Notice of the BLM and EPA compliance suspension.

Various groups were quick to weigh in on the decision Wednesday. Those that have aggressively supported methane rules on public lands see the move as evidence of industry’s influence over politics.

“Last month, Congress explicitly opposed killing these safeguards with a bipartisan vote, but it seems oil and gas CEOs have an ace up their sleeve — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director of the Center for Western Priorities, in a release.

Others are looking at the legality of the stays.

The EPA rule extends a compliance date, leaving supporters of the regulations with a tougher bone to pick legally. But the Bureau of Land Management’s limitations on gas leaks and flares came into effect in January. The agency’s right to change that date after the fact is debatable, environmental groups argue.

“The justification for the stay (on Bureau of Land Management rules) rests on dubious legal grounds, and we are investigating those grounds and appropriate actions,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center.

Industry representatives applauded the move, pointing to the cost the rules would levy on industry trying to comply with rules that may be struck down. The rules, they say, overstepped the bounds of the agencies’ missions. Limitations on energy development is a widespread complaint from operators in Wyoming, where the majority of drilling takes place on federal lands or with federally owned minerals.

“Both rules vastly exceeded federal authority. In the case of the BLM rule, the Bureau tried to assume authority that resides with the states and EPA to regulate air quality,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance in a statement. “In the case of the EPA rule, the agency attempted to regulate methane without conducting a methane endangerment finding, as required by the Clean Air Act. The actions today by the agencies are a first step to correcting that federal regulatory overreach.”

The methane rules are just one of a host of promised regulatory rollbacks. President Donald Trump has also signed a number of executive orders aimed at giving energy development greater prominence in discussion of environmental rules and public land management.

The current push to make good on those promises, however, is litigation fodder for those that want federal agencies to provide environmental oversight. Many believe the courts will play a deciding role in upcoming battles over what agencies can do, have done and should do when it comes to the environment. But the outcome is unclear.

“A lot of that is poised to be tested. To what degree will the federal courts operate as a bulwark to uphold the integrity of federal laws and institutions?” said Schlenker-Goodrich, the western lawyer who supports the BLM methane rules. “We are gonna see whether the courts are up to the task on that front. We better hope so.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

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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