Court nixes Trump admin's 'unlawful' delay of BLM rule

The Trump administration acted unlawfully when it froze Obama-era restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry, a federal court ruled today.

According to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the Interior Department misused a provision of the Administrative Procedure Act when it stalled key provisions of a rule aimed at reducing methane venting and flaring on public and tribal lands.

Just today, BLM unveiled a separate proposal to delay the standards until January 2019. However, the district court's order means that the rule will take effect now.

The court's decision revives the standards, meaning any oil and gas companies not already in compliance will have to scramble to catch up.

Secretary Ryan Zinke sidelined key provisions of the 2016 Bureau of Land Management regulation in June, indefinitely delaying deadlines for measuring flared gas, upgrading equipment and controlling leaks.

Zinke's move followed a failed effort to kill the rule via the Congressional Review Act. Separately, the agency has launched a formal process to roll back the measure.

According to the district court, BLM's approach to freezing parts of the rule violates federal law. The agency relied on APA Section 705, which allows for postponing the effective date of regulations that are facing litigation. But the BLM methane rule took effect in January, with various compliance deadlines spaced out over time.

California, New Mexico and a coalition of environmental groups sued over the delay, arguing that Section 705 applies only to rules that have not yet taken effect (Energywire, Sept. 26). Otherwise, they said, it would allow agencies to circumvent requirements for public notice and comment. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte agreed.

Laporte issued a similar ruling in August, finding that Interior's Office of Natural Resources Revenue misused the same APA provision in its delay of a rule affecting how royalties are calculated for federal fossil fuels (Greenwire, Aug. 31).

The Trump administration also stumbled in its attempt to set aside separate U.S. EPA standards for methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. That regulation was paused through a Clean Air Act reconsideration process, but federal judges in Washington found that EPA had misapplied the provision.

Today's decision is another blow to the administration and oil and gas operators. Industry lawyers have noted that while many companies are already complying with BLM's rule and are prepared for January compliance deadlines, others decided to hold off when Zinke issued the June stay.

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