May 10, 2017

Senate rejects repeal of methane waste rule

Laura Paskus

U.S. Senators voted against overturning a rule aimed at cutting methane waste from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands Wednesday morning.

The surprise defeat of the effort was on a 49-51 vote, with Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina voting along with Democrats to keep the rule.

Note: This is a developing story and we will update as new information comes to light and members of New Mexico’s delegation react.

As we reported yesterday, both of New Mexico’s senators oppose overturning the rule. Both Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are Democrats.

Udall called the vote a “victory for taxpayers and school children in New Mexico.”

“We are definitively better off with this rule in place, which enables producers to use simple inexpensive solutions to prevent waste and save resources,” Udall said in a statement. “Until the BLM’s rule was implemented late last year, $100 million in taxpayer-owned natural gas was lost each year from oil and gas wells operating on federal public lands in New Mexico.”

Conservation groups across the nation, and in New Mexico, were pleased with the Senate’s vote.

Thursday is the last day the Senate can take action on the rule, which the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized, after years of study and public comment, in November. The U.S. House of Representatives already voted to repeal the rule.

The Congressional Review Act (CRA) allows Congress to overturn federal regulations they disapprove of within 60 days of having received the rule. If the methane rule was “disapproved,” the agency would be barred from issuing a similar one in the future without statutory authorization. Nor is the CRA subject to judicial review.

Congress has used the CRA 13 times to repeal Obama-era rules. These included such environmental rules as the Stream Protection Rule and the Alaska National Wildlife Rule (which, among other things, barred the hunting of bear cubs or sows with cubs) as well as a rule that barred internet service providers from selling user information without permission.

The BLM rule limited routine flaring from wells and 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.

It was opposed by Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

The president of the WEA said in a statement she was disappointed the Senate could not overturn the rule and that they would work to overturn the rule.

“We’ll also be working closely with the Department of the Interior on reviewing and rescinding this rule,” WEA President Kathleen Sgamma said. “BLM has the authority to regulate waste, but that’s not what it did in this rule. It imposed air quality controls that read almost verbatim from EPA rules.

Leadership at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees BLM, was also disappointed in today’s vote.

In a statement, Kate MacGregor, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals, said the rule places “significant regulatory burden” on industry and “encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation.”

She called out three states in particular, New Mexico, Colorado and North Dakota, that would be “hit the hardest.”

Prior to joining the Interior Department under President Donald Trump, MacGregor worked for Reps. Eric Cantor and Thelma Drake, both Virginia Republicans, and the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

As reported by The Washington Post, one of the senators to unexpectedly vote against the rule reversal was Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

Don Schreiber, who owns Devil’s Springs Ranch near Blanco, N.M., and Gwen Lachelt, La Plata County (Colorado) Commissioner, both flew to Washington, D.C. earlier this week. Supporters of the rule, the two went to try and convince undecided senators to vote against the rule reversal.

While drinking coffee in the Senate cafeteria on Tuesday, Schreiber said Lachelt spotted McCain walking past. “Gwen took off, O.J. Simpson-style and then disappeared around the corner,” he said. She returned after a while and described her conversations with McCain, he said. The commissioner and the senator spoke about the rule, the CRA and the recent defeat of the Arizona Diamondbacks against the Colorado Rockies. Schreiber also met with McCain’s staff before the vote this morning, and was pleased with McCain’s vote, which he called “pivotal.”

“It’s such an incredible victory for people across the American West, especially for farming and ranching families, which feel the impact,” Schreiber said. “Taxpayers benefit, too, and the conservation of a non-renewable resource, it’s so critical.”

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

Update 1: Added quote by Sen. Tom Udall on the vote.

Update 2: Added quote by Kathleen Sgamma.

Update 3: Added quotes by Kate MacGregor and Don Schreiber.