Greens sue Trump for delaying Obama methane rule

By Amanda Reilly | 06/05/2017 12:59 PM EDT

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit over U.S. EPA's delay in implementing an Obama-era methane rule.

Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit over U.S. EPA's delay in implementing an Obama-era methane rule. Tim Evanson/Wikipedia

Environmentalists today made good on their promise to sue the Trump administration over its delay of Obama-era standards to reduce methane emissions from new oil and gas sources.

Shortly after the administration this morning published a notice delaying key parts of the rule for 90 days, several environmental groups filed a petition seeking review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The groups — the Clean Air Council, Earthworks, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Integrity Project, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club — are also asking the court for an emergency stay of U.S. EPA’s decision that would keep the regulations in effect.


"In its haste to do favors for its polluter cronies, the Trump EPA has broken the law," Meleah Geertsma, senior NRDC attorney, said in a statement. "The Trump administration does not have unlimited power to put people’s health in jeopardy with unchecked, unilateral executive action like this."

Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. The 2016 standards were a key part of President Obama’s goal of reducing emissions from the oil and gas industry between 40 and 45 percent by 2025 compared with 2012 levels.

Central to the rule were requirements for new and heavily modified oil and gas operations to check for and repair leaks. The leak detection requirements were expected to deliver more than half the rule’s methane reductions and up to 45 percent of its reductions in smog-forming volatile organic compounds.

The Obama EPA set a deadline of June 3 for owners of new and modified oil and gas operations to complete a first round of monitoring. Operators would have been required to fix any leaks within 30 days.

But last week, a day before President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the international Paris climate change agreement, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agency would formally delay rule provisions by 90 days, including the fugitive emissions requirements (Greenwire, May 31). That stay went into effect today upon publication in the Federal Register.

Pruitt’s decision came after EPA granted requests by energy industry trade groups to reconsider parts of the rule, including its fugitive emissions requirements for low-producing wells, site pneumatic pump standards and requirements for certifying closed vent systems by a professional engineer.

"American businesses should have the opportunity to review new requirements, assess economic impacts and report back, before those new requirements are finalized," Pruitt said in April when announcing the reconsideration of some aspects of the rule (Greenwire, April 19).

In their motion asking judges to block EPA’s delay of the standards, groups said the administration’s decision would cause irreparable harm. They said EPA’s decision affects more than 18,000 wells and associated equipment in 22 states.

"Every day that the administrative stay is in place irreparably harms petitioners and their members, as well as all Americans similarly situated," the motion says. "Because of the administrative stay, these individuals will now continue to experience high levels of dangerous air pollution due to unmonitored and unfixed leaks."

As expected, the environmental groups are arguing that EPA had no authority to issue the stay without going through formal notice-and-comment procedures.

The Trump administration premised the stay on a provision in the Clean Air Act that allows EPA to pause certain regulatory requirements when it has granted a petition for reconsideration of a rule.

But the environmental groups say the energy industry’s reconsideration request was invalid because the issues it raised had already been extensively hashed out during the Obama rulemaking process (Energywire, June 1).

Moreover, the groups argue, the decision to stay the deadline was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act "because it is overbroad."

"The action was patently unlawful, the irreparable harm to the public is serious, and the burden on industry is minimal," their motion says.

The Clean Air Task Force, which is representing Earthworks in the case, today characterized the suit as the first legal challenge against a Trump administration decision to halt a climate change regulation’s emission reduction requirements.

"While EPA’s stay is premised on its authority to ‘reconsider’ the 2016 methane rule, as a legal matter that tactic is simply not available to the agency for this rule," said CATF attorney Darin Schroeder.

He added: "EPA is attempting an end-around the law."