May 9, 2017

Clock ticking on congressional ‘disapproval’ of BLM methane waste rule

Laura Paskus

Flaring in the Four Corners

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, is expected to announce today whether he’ll try overturning a rule that would cut methane waste from the oil and gas industry.

This is the last week that the Senate can overturn the methane rule under the Congressional Review Act (CRA). That law, passed in 1996, allows Congress to overturn federal regulations they disapprove of within 60 days of having received the rule. If the rule is “disapproved,” the agency isn’t allowed to issue a similar rule in the future without statutory authorization. Nor is the CRA subject to judicial review.

Last November, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued the final version of a rule requiring the energy industry to reduce methane, or natural gas, released from wells and infrastructure on federal and tribal lands.

The rule limited routine flaring from wells, required operators to modernize leak-detection technology and fix the leaks they found. It also prevented operators from venting methane directly into the atmosphere in most circumstances.

But Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America opposed the rule, saying it will increase operating costs. Supporters of the rule say it will cut pollution and increase efficiency and cost-savings.

New Mexico and California supported the rule, saying it would benefit states in three main ways: generating more annual revenue by cutting natural gas waste, protecting public health from harmful air pollution and reducing the impacts of climate change.

Both of New Mexico’s senators, Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, support the rule.

In a statement, Udall said it would encourage operators to take “commonsense steps” to prevent leaks and waste.

“The only reason to bring this CRA to the floor for a vote is to please the lobbyists for big oil who would prefer to pollute the air and don’t care that it comes at the expense of the health of taxpayers in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and states across the country,” he said.

Udall also opposes using the Congressional Review Act to overturn the rule.

“Republicans and Democrats alike know that the CRA is a terrible way to legislate because [it] takes a sledgehammer to the law, preventing the agency from addressing the issue again,” he said. “The natural gas waste prevention rule was written with careful consideration after months of public and stakeholder comment, and it follows the examples set by Colorado and Wyoming, which have state-level rules that are successfully creating jobs and preventing the waste of resources and revenue.

In New Mexico, the BLM manages 13.5 million acres and thousands of oil and gas wells.

In 2014, scientists published a study showing that the nation’s largest “methane anomaly” or hotspot is above the Four Corners. After conducting ground and air surveys, they identified 250 emitters of methane. They also found that 10 percent of those 250 were responsible for about half the methane emissions in the entire San Juan Basin.