On February 22, a federal district court judge held that the Interior Department, specifically its Bureau of Land Management, must begin enforcing a rule promulgated during the previous administration that limits methane leaks from oil and gas drilling on federally owned or tribal lands.

The BLM has presumed to suspend the Waste Prevention rule until January 2019.

But in the words of the Hon. William H. Orrick, the reasoning the BLM gave when it issued that suspension “is untethered to evidence.” The plaintiffs, two state AG offices and environmental groups, had successfully shown a threat of “irreparable injury” should the rule not come into effect. These injuries would come about from the “the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts.”  

The BLM had argued that it should be allowed greater discretion in judicial review of a mere one-year suspension of enforcement than would be appropriate for review of an outright appeal. Judge Orrick agreed that there was some truth to that but, nonetheless, the Bureau “must be prepared to provide the requisite good reasons and detailed justification” for a suspension, which in his view it had failed to do before him.

On the same day that Orrick ordered the rule enforced, the BLM published its plan to go further than a mere suspension, to repeal much of the methane rule altogether.

Left Wing View

The National Resources Defense Council tweeted out its enthusiasm for the decision, saying that “this pro-polluter administration will not get away with illegal handouts to industry at Americans’ expense.”

On its website, the NRDC says the Waste Prevention Rule was a necessary update of “waste regulations that were more than 30 years old and did not reflect the dramatic advances in oil and gas drilling technology or the rapid expansion of drilling operations on public lands in recent years.”

Likewise, Xavier Becerra, California’s Attorney General, says that the suspension of the original rule was a threat to “the health of our families & our environment.” Thus, the court order is a salutary reminder that no one is “above the law.”

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, tweets that the news of the court ruling is “stunningly positive … proof that we can win real meaningful victories.”

On its website, the EDF characterizes the Waste Prevention Rule as requiring only “common-sense measures to reduce preventable leaks and flaring of methane, the primary component of natural gas.”

Right Wing View

The head of the Western Energy Alliance, Kathleen Sgamma, issued a statement saying that the 2016 order “was an unlawful overreach as BLM attempted to assume the air quality regulatory authority that resides with the states and EPA.” She praised the administration for “going through the proper rulemaking process to correct this unlawful rule,” but said that process takes time, and a suspension in the meanwhile was appropriate.

The Western Energy Alliance, formerly known as the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, also says that the industry self-regulation has successfully shrunk methane emissions 19% since 1990 and that the industry “recognizes its role in finding solutions.”

Leaders of the Colorado State Senate have opposed the methane restriction, supporting repeal, largely out of a concern that cracking down on these emissions will limit the revenues they generate: royalties for the federal government and severance taxes for the states.

Conservatives are allied on this issue with some of the affected Indian tribes.  Clement Frost, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe, has said that his tribe “relies on revenues from Reservation energy development to fund important government services.”

Frost has written to the Speaker of the House to say that the rule should be rendered void through Congressional action, complaining of its one-size-fits-all model that “does not admit of variations in resources, different levels of pressure in oil and gas fields, and variations associated with extraction activities in general.”

Efforts at a Congressional nullification of the regulation under the Congressional Review Act failed.