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Trump administration curbs Obama-era methane-waste rule

September 19, 2018

The Trump administration toppled another pillar of President Obama’s climate change legacy, reining in the “flawed” rule designed to tighten restrictions on methane leaks from drilling operations on federal lands.

On Tuesday, Interior Department officials released the final revised version of 2016 Waste Prevention Rule, saying the changes eliminated the “cumbersome and duplicative requirements” that interfered with state and tribal authority while restoring “proven regulations at a time when investment in federal onshore oil and gas is skyrocketing.”

“This is a big day at the Department of Interior on our agenda for promulgating smart regulations that allow responsible energy production to move forward,” said Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Kate MacGregor in a press call.

Scaling back the never-implemented Obama rule is expected to save $1.3 billion to $1.6 billion over 10 years in costs to oil-and-gas companies, most of which would have been passed on to consumers, while generating an economic benefit of $734 million to $1 billion.

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt alluded to the ongoing legal battle over the 2016 rule, calling it “a radical assertion of legal authority that stood in stark contrast to the longstanding understanding of Interior’s own lawyers.”

“We’re for clean air and water, but at the same time, we’re for reasonable regulations,” Mr. Bernhardt told reporters.

The revised regulations, which will be published in the Federal Register, drew cheers from Republicans and energy groups that have long decried the rule as an illegal, expensive fix yielding little benefit, while Democrats and environmentalists called it a dark day for the climate.

“This is a very big deal, and will make climate change much worse for no reason other than to make life even easier for fossil fuel companies,” said 350.org President Bill McKibben, while Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, called it “beyond reckless.”

Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, accused the Trump administration of “doing the bidding of a handful of corporate polluters and ignoring the voices of regular people in the West and around the country.”

“The Trump administration justifies its rollback of methane standards by saying it will be a cost-saver for industry. But what about the costs to our health, and the costs of the climate crisis?” asked former Vice President Al Gore. “We need to put people and our planet over polluters’ profits.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra responded to the administration’s move by announcing his state and New Mexico have filed a lawsuit to block the rollback.

Interior officials argued that the Obama rule overlapped with EPA and state regulations, creating a confusing and unnecessary regulatory patchwork while imposing additional compliance costs that threatened to shut down small operators.

The American PetroleumInstitutesaid methane emissions had long declined even without the Obama rule, dropping by 14 percent from 1990 to 2017 at the same time that natural-gas production increased by more than 50 percent.

“This regulatory decision by the Trump administration improves environmental outcomes without negative economic impact,” said House Natural Resources Committee chairman Rob Bishop. “I look forward to working with the Department of the Interior as they continue to advance ideas of balanced conservation measures and American energy dominance.”

Like the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which President Trump has moved to replace, the methane rule was tied up in court before it could take effect after a federal judge in Wyoming slapped a stay on the policy in April. The rule had been scheduled to begin in January 2019.

The legal fight centered on whether the Bureau of Land Management, charged with implementing the venting-and-flaring restrictions, had the authority to enforce regulations under the Clean Air Act.

“The BLM has no authority over regulation of air emissions, which is more properly a function of the state governments as specified by the Clean Air Act,” said American Energy Alliance President Thomas J. Pyle.

Last week, the EPA proposed rolling back another 2016 methane standard, a piece of the Obama administration’s aggressive climate change agenda, arguing that eliminating the “excessive red tape” would result in a savings of $484 million over six years.

Compared with carbon dioxide, methane is more potent but also shorter-lived in the atmosphere. The gas is up to 84 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20-year period, and up to 34 times more potent over 100 years, according to Washington State University researchers.

Methane emissions represented 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 carbon dioxide accounted for 81 percent while methane that escaped from U.S. wells represented 1.4 percent of global methane emissions, according to EPA figures.

Environmentalists argued that companies won’t fix leaks under the revised rule, leading to more air pollution versus what would have been produced in theory under the Obama rule, but industry officials argued that drillers have every incentive to capture all trappable methane.

″[T]he energy sector is already significantly reducing methane emissions without this top-down directive from the federal government, in part, because methane itself is a valuable resource that producers have incentive to capture and sell,” Mr. Pyle said.

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