The Flawed BLM Methane Rule

In mid-June, the Trump administration moved closer toward rescinding methane rules imposed during the Obama administration that, on paper, would limit the amount of methane released into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations.

Also in mid-June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a two-year ban on the requirement that energy-producing companies monitor methane leaks from their facilities. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced an indefinite postponement of a separate regulation aimed at forcing those same companies to reduce the amount of methane released into the atmosphere.

According to DOI officials, the Obama-era methane rules have imposed “a significant regulatory burden that encumbers American energy production, economic growth and job creation.” And Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade association representing more than 300 companies, said in a statement, “Both rules vastly exceeded federal authority.” Sgamma rightly asserted that the White House is now “correcting that overreach from the prior administration, thereby saving jobs and supporting American energy independence.”

But how did we get here in the first place? And why?

In the final months of the Obama administration, the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. Finalized on Nov. 18, 2016, it was the BLM’s final rule on methane waste related to oil and gas production on federal lands. And I have since held that the rule is — and I’m sure Sgamma and others within the alliance would agree — a redundant and unnecessary measure that represents some of the worst tendencies of the previous administration on domestic energy production as it punishes the very industry responsible for substantial reductions in American greenhouse gas emissions.

The broader implications of the BLM methane rule are even more troubling as debate over repealing the rule (like what we recently witnessed in Congress) has demonstrated that any sound political discourse on climate change policy is still being shaped by the same misguided responses proposed by many elected leaders in recent decades.

Our nation needs and deserves informed leadership on these issues that are critically important to our energy, environmental and national security.

The Mineral Leasing Act (MLA) provides the BLM the authority to “use all reasonable precautions to prevent waste of oil or gas developed in the land.” This law, however, does not allow the BLM to regulate air quality and require emissions controls, which is the responsibility of the EPA and the states under the Clean Air Act.

The methane rule is an air-quality regulation that is beyond both the jurisdiction and the technical expertise of the BLM. In fact, the EPA recently issued a final rule clarifying its “air permitting rules as they apply to the oil and natural gas industry.” These policies, known as the Oil and Gas New Source Performance Standards for New, Reconstructed, and Modified Sources Rule (NSPS Rule/Methane NSPS/Oil and Gas Rule/0000a), are intended to “curb emissions of methane and volatile organic compounds from additional new, modified and reconstructed sources in the oil and gas industry.”

Along with the EPA, states have the authority to regulate emissions; and a number of states have developed programs that are suited to their unique needs. Major energy-producing states like Colorado, North Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wyoming have emissions programs that have been created with stakeholder input and local regulatory expertise.

Rather than promoting responsible development of American energy resources, the duplicative BLM methane rule will obstruct the all-of-the-above energy development approach championed by the agency. The prevention of the production of low-carbon natural gas resources should be troubling to those who have celebrated recent reductions in American carbon emissions. Expanded production and use of natural gas (particularly for energy generation) in the U.S. has reduced American greenhouse gas emissions to levels not seen since the early 1990s, while still promoting economic growth and prosperity. Moreover, expanded electrical power generation from natural gas has allowed for the growth of intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
The BLM methane rule and other similar punitive measures on American energy producers drives economic activity out of the U.S. and into other countries that have minimal environmental protections in place (for greenhouse gases and other pollutants such as particulate matter).

The Senate had an opportunity to repeal the BLM methane rule in May by way of a Congressional Review Act resolution that the House had approved in February. But the Senate vote fell two shy of the number needed to advance debate on the measure. Though the Senate was not successful in its effort to do away with this policy, the BLM can still move to withdraw the rule through the normal agency rule-making process.

We also have the shale energy boom of the last decade, which has forever altered the global energy landscape. Incredible technological advances in the energy industry have unlocked oil and gas resources across the country, and have, in turn, according to the London Financial Times,“transformed the outlook for U.S. energy security, created hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs and rattled the leaders of rival oil-producing countries from Riyadh [Saudi Arabia] to Caracas [Venezuela].”

The natural gas boom and other advances have caused American emissions to be flat in recent years. Therefore, the U.S. is responsible for only 12.9 percent of the anthropogenic contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions each year. Of this total, only approximately 2.7 percent may be attributed to methane emissions from oil and gas production. Since roughly one-third of American oil and gas production occurs on federal lands, the amount of methane targeted by the BLM rule amounts to a mere 0.9 percent of total U.S. annual greenhouse gas emissions.

American policymakers should celebrate these reductions and seek policies that engage energy producers to reduce methane leakage and flaring in order to promote the continued growth in production of low-carbon natural gas resources. Unfortunately, the BLM methane rule takes the opposite approach. The rule adds costs to energy producers (particularly smaller companies) with minimal benefit to the climate or environment. Fortunately, at least for the time being, we are seeing aggressive steps to halt the misguided overreach of the previous administration.

 

About the author: Tom Mullikin is an energy and environmental expert who has represented major energy producers, manufacturers and the United Nations in complex matters across the U.S. and the globe. He also serves as Research Professor in the Coastal and Marine Systems Science doctoral program at Coastal Carolina University where he teaches environmental law.

 

Featured photo source: Zulkiffle Mohd Kassim/bigstock.com