While Legislation Failed, Interior Department Still Wants to Scrap Methane Rule

by | May 15, 2017

The US Senate may have rejected a bill to overturn an Obama-era rule to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal lands, but it does not end the effort. The US Department of Interior now says that it will try and do so though regulatory means — an attempt that, if successful, would still take years.

Interestingly, the methane legislation had been the last of 14 bills that would have turned back the clock on Obama-era environmental rules — rules ranging from allowing coal companies to more easily toss their debris into streams to permitting more coal development on public lands. All of them — except the methane rule — passed under the so-called Congressional Review Act that permits rules enacted in the waning days of a presidency to be reversed with a simple majority in both chambers of Congress.

The Senate, though, rejected the measure to throw out the methane rule by a vote of 51 to 49. The majority said that methane is the most potent greenhouse gas of them all while the minority said that it is an expensive and duplicative rule.

Donald Trump’s Interior Department will “suspend, revise or rescind given its significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation,” Kate MacGregor, Interior’s acting secretary for land and minerals said, in a statement.

“The rule is expected to have real and harmful impacts on onshore energy development and could impact state and local jobs and revenue,” MacGregor added. “Small independent oil and gas producers in states like North Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico, which account for a substantial portion of our nation’s energy wealth, could be hit the hardest.”

In November 2016, the Obama White House issued its final ruling to require energy producers to reduce their methane leaks on federal lands or those controlled by Native American tribes. It affects about 100,000 oil wells that when drilled will also uncork natural gas, which is now either leaked, vented or “flared” and which, as a result, releases the greenhouse gas called methane.

Roughly 375 billion cubic feet of methane has entered the atmosphere over five years, ending 2014, Obama’s Interior Department said. If that methane was captured and resold, it could not just cut the level of heat-trapping emissions but it could also go to productive use by helping heat homes and businesses.

A General Accountability Office study said that 40 percent of that could be captured, meaning that investments in current technologies could easily pay off.

It was all part of the Obama administration’s overall effort to cut the level of methane gas emissions by 40-45 percent by the year 2025, from 2012 levels. If escaping natural gas could be captured and resold, industry could increase its revenues by as much as $188 million a year, it added.

According to scientists, methane is 72 times as powerful as carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat, although it dissipates after 20 years whereas the carbon dioxide stays active for 100 years.

Taxpayers were facing the loss of $800 million in lost royalty revenue over the coming decade, and methane is one of the world’s most potent greenhouse gases,” Andrew Logan, director of the oil and gas program at Ceres said. “The U.S. Bureau of Land Management rule has a climate benefit equal to taking 950,000 vehicles off the road.”

But the American Petroleum Institute pointed to a study by the US Environmental Protection Agency that said methane emissions have been falling, making the trade group question why the new rules have even been necessary. The report released in March shows that methane emissions from all petroleum systems decreased by 28 percent since 1990. EPA attributed this improvement to decreases in emissions from associated gas venting and flaring.

“While it is disappointing that the Senate did not act to correct the rule more quickly, we look forward to working with the administration on policies that continue our commitment to safely produce the energy that Americans rely on, help consumers, create jobs, strengthen our national security, and protect our environment,” API’s Upstream and Industry Operations Group Director Erik Milito said, in a statement.

By all accounts, much of the oil and gas industry has taken steps to be responsible, trying to control the levels of methane that escape from their wells and pipes. And while producers have had success reducing their emissions, the technologies exist to do better — tools that will also allow them to capture and to resell the methane that would otherwise get released into the atmosphere.

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