Oil and gas firms will not have to comply with a signature environmental rule from the Obama era, a federal judge in Wyoming decided Wednesday.
Most have lost count of the times that the Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste rule has been laid before a judge or gone in and out of effect.
A previous decision in early February had essentially ordered industry to comply while the Interior Department revised the standards.
The rules would curb venting and flaring from industry infrastructure and require more labor-intensive checks for accidental leaks.
Whether the rules were necessary, worth the cost and within the Bureau of Land Management’s authority are points of division among industry, states and environmental groups.
After the February decision from a judge in northern California, industry groups said it would be impossible for many firms to comply overnight, and it remained unclear at the time how and if the Bureau of Land Management would enforce the rules. But environmental groups applauded the decision, one of a host in favor of the rules in 2017. They argued that industry had had years to prepare.
The rules were finalized in 2016, with a phase-in of compliance. Industry groups attempted multiple times to halt compliance on aspects of the rule. Congress also went after the rules, attempting to axe them completely via a rarely-used provision to eliminate midnight decisions of an outgoing president. That also failed. The Interior Department tried to rescind the rule, but was chided by the courts for not following the administrative process of undoing a rule.
Since that decision the Interior has proposed a revision which would eliminate some of the most contested aspects, like using radar equipment to identify leaks from pipelines.
Wyoming federal judge Scott Skavdahl bemoaned the back and forth on the standards in his written decision Wednesday, saying compliance with the rules, given that those requirements will soon disappear, “makes little sense.”
“Sadly, and frustratingly, this case is symbolic of the dysfunction in the current state of administrative law,” he said. “And unfortunately, it is not the first time this dysfunction has frustrated the administrative review process in this Court.”
The judge did not rule on the merits of the rule, so addressing methane leaks and flares is still going to have its day in court. But until then, the judge said, the rules should be on hold.
“A stay will provide certainty and stability for the regulated community and the general public while BLM completes its rulemaking process, which will allow the BLM to focus its limited resources on completing the revision rulemaking, and would prevent the unrecoverable expenditure of millions of dollars in compliance costs,” he wrote.
“The waste, inefficiency, and futility associated with a ping-ponging regulatory regime is self-evident and in no party’s interest.”
Environmental groups were frustrated Wednesday. The Environmental Defense Fund, a prominent group in favor of methane rules, vowed to file an immediate appeal.
“Today’s ruling effectively punishes the responsible operators that have been complying with these reasonable standards while rewarding those in the oil and gas industry that are recklessly wasting a valuable public resource and squandering tax payers’ hard-earned money,” said EDF’s lead attorney Peter Zalzal, in a statement Wednesday.
More than three-quarters of Wyomingites polled on the issue in a recent Colorado College survey, said they were in favor of the types of measures in the Bureau of Land Management’s rules, which include infrared camera checks for leaks and regular on-the-ground reviews of equipment and infrastructure.
Wyoming environmental groups, like the Wyoming Outdoor Council, are pressuring the state to increase its air quality standards given the uncertainty around the Bureau of Land Management methane provisions and the stalled development of Environmental Protection Agency standards on existing sources of oil and gas methane emissions.
However, the Wyoming court decision was a win for industry’s side of the methane debate, one of few highpoints for their position in the last year.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance out of Denver said the Skavdahl decision was a realistic one.
“He clearly does not think it makes sense to have companies comply with a rule that BLM is substantially rewriting in just a matter of months,” she said in an email Wednesday. “We’re happy that he agreed with our arguments and that time and resources will not be wasted on an overreaching rule that the Obama Administration used to try to take air regulatory authority away from EPA and the states, and give to BLM.”
Groups like Western Energy Alliance have disputed some of the environmental advocates’ estimates of wasted gas, arguing that companies want to capture and sell all the gas that they can. The rules, they say, were punitive.