Obama officials rush to curb methane on public lands

By Ellen M. Gilmer, Mike Soraghan | 01/25/2016 07:26 AM EST

The Obama administration says it has no time to waste on finalizing efforts to curb the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions.

The Obama administration says it has no time to waste on finalizing efforts to curb the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions.

"We are going to push hard to get this done," Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze said during a Friday press call announcing the release of a draft rule targeting natural gas waste. "Every day matters at this point, and this is a very high priority for us."

The daily twists and turns of the presidential campaign are a reminder that Obama has less than a year left in office. In the world of federal regulation, that’s a very short period of time to enact a climate agenda, of which the methane rule is a key part.


So Kornze’s message served as a warning to industry, which vehemently opposes the proposal and is expected to challenge the final version in court.

Congressional Republicans lambasted the announcement as one more hostile act toward fossil fuel industries by a lame-duck Democratic president. But they offered no threats to block or delay its progress.

The agency will hold public meetings on the draft rule in February and March and expects to finalize it by the end of the year.

Drillers say the draft rule, which aims to curb methane flaring, venting and leaking on public and tribal lands, fails to acknowledge the strides industry has already taken in reducing emissions of the potent greenhouse gas. Plus, they say, the proposal exceeds BLM’s authority.

"We support the goal of capturing greater quantities of methane and reducing waste gas, but a command-and-control regulatory approach is not the most effective way to meet that goal, particularly one that exceeds BLM’s jurisdiction," the Western Energy Alliance’s Kathleen Sgamma said in a statement.

BLM’s proposed rule — part of a suite of changes designed to meet President Obama’s Climate Action Plan — would require oil and gas operators to limit natural gas flaring from oil wells, identify and repair methane leaks from wells and infrastructure, and generally prohibit direct venting of methane into the air. The requirements would phase in over three years. The proposal would also give the agency discretion to raise royalty rates in the future and would clarify when operators must pay royalties on flared gas.

Agency officials said they were confident the rule would stand up to legal scrutiny.

"Anyone could file a potential lawsuit," Interior Assistant Secretary Janice Schneider said during the press call. But, she said, "we feel very confident with our statutory authority here to require a reasonable suite of waste reduction methods under the Mineral Leasing Act and under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act."

But responsibility for defending it in court would likely fall to the next administration. A Democrat would be likely to offer a full-throated defense, a Republican far less so.

Interior and environmental allies say the rule is an essential tool to combat the powerful climate warming effects of methane, the main component of natural gas, and recover royalties the government would otherwise receive on the lost gas.

"The truth is, the … costs of releasing natural gas into the atmosphere are clear, significant and dangerous," Schneider said. "If we’re wasting that much energy, we’re clearly not operating efficiently."

BLM estimates that 96 billion cubic feet of natural gas is wasted each year from venting, flaring and leaking. The new measures are designed to avoid about half of that, resulting in a $9 million to $16 million increase in royalties per year, a small percentage of the agency’s roughly billion-dollar yearly revenue from oil and gas royalties.

Methane releases from the oil and gas industry have attracted close scrutiny in recent years, with some environmentalists arguing that the emissions undermine any environmental advantage of switching from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas as a fuel source.

"We applaud the Obama Administration for working to prevent venting and flaring of methane at new and existing operations on public lands," Earthworks Policy Director Lauren Pagel said in a statement. "The current inadequate rules allow the oil and gas industry to waste and pollute with impunity."

Still, many in the environmental community are calling for further action. To those in the "keep it in the ground" camp, Friday’s announcement was too much like business as usual.

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Meleah Geertsma said the administration should require increased use of available technology to curb emissions on both public and private lands. And, she said, Interior should follow its recent decision to pause coal leasing by establishing a broad ban on new fossil fuel development on public lands.