WASHINGTON - The Trump administration has delayed for two years a pair of rules that would have limited the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations across the country.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday it would postpone a 2016 rule limiting methane and smog-forming pollutants from oil and gas wells. The decision was made at the request of firms that would be affected by rule as the EPA reconsidered whether to implement the stricter standard. Separately, the Bureau of Land Management entered a notice into the Federal Register on Friday stating it would delay compliance with a rule finalized in November that would limit methane burned off from drilling operations on federal and tribal lands.
Congressional Republicans had sought to nullify the BLM rule last month through a vote under the Congressional Review Act, but that effort failed by a vote of 51 to 49. Backers of the rule, which included three Republicans, noted that it would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere and would boost federal revenue between $3 million and $13 million a year because firms pay royalties only on the oil and gas they capture and contain.
Interior officials did not issue a public statement on the decision to delay the rule. But Katharine MacGregor, deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, wrote in the Federal Register notice, "While the BLM believes the Waste Prevention Rule was properly promulgated, the petitioners have raised serious questions concerning the validity of certain provisions of the Rule."
Oil and gas industry officials, who have challenged both regulations in federal court, praised the moves as providing a needed reprieve. A Wyoming federal district court had previously denied a request to stay the new BLM standards.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, said in a statement, "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," Sgamma said. "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."
Environmental groups said the lengthy delays would hurt both public health and the climate.
Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the EPA said in its own public notice that "the environmental health or safety risk addressed by this action may have a disproportionate effect on children" but described that outcome as acceptable. "Any impacts on children's health caused by the delay in the rule will be limited, because the length of the proposed stay is limited," the agency said.
Several senators had asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to either revise or eliminate the rule curbing the release of methane, known as "flaring," from operations on public lands. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., called for scrapping it altogether, while Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, N.D., and Joe Manchin, W.Va., had urged Zinke to preserve it but see if he could address some of the concerns of oil and gas operators.
Mark Brownstein, the Environmental Defense Fund's vice president of climate and energy, questioned why the Interior Department would freeze a rule that had withstood a Senate vote as well as initial scrutiny from the courts.
"Disregarding the will of the people, the interests of taxpayers, and legal safeguards, all in the name of doing the bidding of the oil and gas industry is shameful and, in the end, will be politically disastrous for the administration, and for the industry," Brownstein said.