Environmentalists are celebrating a big victory today after a federal court struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to stall Obama-era methane standards for the oil and gas industry.
"What we’re seeing is that the court is making it clear yet again that the Trump administration is not above the law," said Earthjustice attorney Robin Cooley, who represents a coalition of environmental and tribal groups in litigation over the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to suspend key provisions of the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule for one year.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last night reversed BLM’s suspension, ruling that the agency’s move was "untethered to evidence" supporting the change in position. Judge William Orrick issued a preliminary injunction requiring BLM to fully enforce the regulation (Energywire, Feb. 23).
Supporters of the rule suspension are expected to challenge the court’s decision.
The ruling is a major win for environmentalists and the states of California and New Mexico, which sued BLM in December over the administration’s latest attempt to sideline the rule. And it’s another rebuke from courts that have already blocked multiple efforts by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to ease regulations on oil and gas development.
"This ruling shows the courts won’t allow the Trump administration to flout the law to reward the fossil fuel industry," Center for Biological Diversity attorney Michael Saul said. "Unchecked methane waste hurts our lungs, rips off taxpayers and cooks the planet."
The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, is steaming.
Oil and gas groups say it is overly burdensome to have to comply with the suspended standards when just last week, BLM unveiled a proposal to build upon the one-year suspension and permanently erase the meat of the Obama methane rule (Energywire, Feb. 15).
"It is extremely disruptive to comply with a rule that is being substantially rewritten," Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said in an email. "The judge lacked perspective on the miniscule amounts of methane in question with this rule, especially when compared with EPA and state rules already in effect and industry’s record in substantially reducing methane emissions over the last four decades as well last few years."
The Obama-era methane regulation is aimed at reducing venting, flaring and leakage of the potent greenhouse gas on public and tribal lands.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) celebrated the restoration of the rule as a win for taxpayers who lose out on potential royalties from escaped methane.
"Today’s ruling confirms that President Trump and Secretary Zinke’s attempt to suspend the BLM’s methane rule is illegal and harms both our environment and New Mexican school children, who lose vital education dollars from lost royalties," he said in a statement. "I will continue to fight for New Mexican families’ health and well being, and to ensure that they get the all of the money they are owed from natural gas royalties."
Cooley, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the California court’s ruling has implications beyond BLM’s suspension of the methane standards, with the agency’s broader revision effort potentially facing a similar fate in the courtroom.
Indeed, it is not the first time courts have cracked down on the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations affecting fossil fuel development.
Following the president’s "energy independence" executive order last year, EPA moved to halt standards for methane emissions from new oil and gas sites, and BLM tried a different administrative tool to delay the venting and flaring rule for public lands.
Courts knocked down both of those attempts last year, plus a separate effort by the Interior Department to sideline Obama-era reforms on how royalties are calculated for federal fossil fuels.
More legal drama ahead
Lawyers for the government, industry and states opposed to the Obama measures have a number of options for pushing back on the preliminary injunction.
They could appeal the California court’s preliminary injunction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and could seek to keep the suspension intact at least until the 9th Circuit resolves the issue.
They could also take their fight back to a district court in Wyoming. The U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming has been handling challenges to the methane rule since the Obama administration finalized it in 2016. The court rejected early requests from industry and states to enjoin the Obama rule, but the litigants could ask again.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance made a renewed request to block the Obama rule late last year but agreed to withdraw it in light of BLM’s suspension. They noted at the time that they would refile if needed.
Sgamma said her group was going for a full-court press, with actions in several courtrooms.
"We will soon be taking action in our related case in Wyoming, with a judge who’s spent the last year and a half understanding the issues with this rule, as well as getting the Northern District of California and Ninth Circuit which doesn’t have that experience, likewise up to speed," she said in an email this morning.
A spokesman for the IPAA said the group was still reviewing the decision.
BLM and Interior referred to the Justice Department questions about how the government plans to comply with the court’s decision or whether it is planning to appeal. DOJ doesn’t comment on litigation strategy.