The Blue Hills natural gas processing plant near Canyonlands Field Airport flared off gas in April 2016. The Trump administration is delaying the implementation of an Obama-era rule that would limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands. [Moab Sun News file photo]

The Trump administration has delayed and suspended a rule that would limit methane emissions from oil and gas industry operations, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced last week.

The Methane and Waste Prevention Rule would limit the loss through venting, flaring or leaks of natural gas from oil and gas production on public and Indian lands. The mostly methane natural gas contributes to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and represents a natural resource on which royalty is not paid, according to the BLM’s website.

Attempts to suspend the Obama-era rule failed twice earlier this year when the U.S. Senate rejected an attempt to overturn the regulation, and when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia blocked suspension of the rule.

However, President Donald Trump’s Executive Order “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs” required the BLM to take another look at the rule, BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said.

“We’re part of the executive branch, and with this executive order, it requires agencies like the BLM to find ways to reduce regulatory compliance costs,” Henry said. “The BLM determined that if we delay requirements it will prevent compliance costs because the rules may be changed. If we implement the rule while reviewing, it might cause an unnecessary burden on industry.”

A byproduct of oil and gas production, methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, according to federal regulatory agencies.

Technologies exist that allow the oil and gas industry to capture the waste product, but companies are not required to install the measures.

The methane rule, if implemented, would actually create jobs, not inhibit economic growth, said Moab resident Ashley Korenblat, managing director of the nonprofit Public Land Solutions, a group that does recreation planning on public lands.

“In the oil fields, there would be more frequent monitoring and installation of equipment – which leads to job creation,” and there are lots of companies working on the technologies, she said.

Korenblat, who also owns Western Spirit Cycling, said it’s important to reduce emissions to preserve air quality.

“If we’re going to integrate oil and gas development with recreation, we have to care about air quality,” Korenblat said. “If we don’t implement ‘best practices,’ we risk air quality issues. Nobody wants to recreate in a place with bad air.”

Korenblat pointed out that the BLM is mandated to allow multiple uses on its federal lands and that industries that pollute the air can wreak havoc on other uses – such as recreation.

“From the recreation industry standpoint, it’s a concern,” she said. “We have bike trails near well pads all over Grand County.”

Castle Valley resident Bill Rau said the decision adds more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, thus speeding up the processes of climate change.

“The fossil fuel industry, as many other industries, needs greater regulation, not less, in order to protect our living standards and health, as well as the environment in which we work and live,” he said.

In Utah, he said, the decision further undermines efforts to improve air quality, not only in fossil fuel production areas, but in the Salt Lake Basin.

“In our region, flaring of oil and gas wells will increase, impacting tourism and clear skies,” Rau said.

Former oil and gas industry official Todd Mitchell said in a Denver Post column that methane accounts for about 25 percent of the warming that we’re experiencing today. Mitchell, who also served on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, went on to say that “Nationwide, oil and gas producers emit over 8 million metric tons of methane a year.”

Capturing the methane would limit the release of harmful emissions into the atmosphere, and would also provide another revenue source for companies who could sell the natural gas; nearby communities would also benefit by receiving royalty payments.

Some parts of the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule had been in effect since the rule was published in the Federal Register in November 2016. A provision that went into effect on Jan. 17, 2017, required operators to submit a “waste minimization plan” with their drilling operations. Those requirements have been suspended, while other sections of the rule that would have gone into effect in January 2018, have been delayed until Jan. 17, 2019.

After the Federal Register published the rule, two industry groups – the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to suspend or postpone the compliance dates. The industry groups joined the states of Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota in asking the courts for judicial review.

The national standards were modeled on a Colorado rule that brought both industry and environmentalists to the table. Colorado’s waste prevention rule eliminated more than 100,000 tons of methane emissions a year, and 90,000 tons of other pollution, Mitchell said.

A 2010 Government Accountability Office report found that at least 5 percent of all natural gas on lands within the U.S. is lost to flaring and venting, and that the majority of the escaped gas could be captured with existing technologies.

“As we strengthen America’s energy independence, we need to make sure that regulations do not unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, or prevent job creation,” BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs Brian Steed said in a Dec. 7 BLM news release.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, an industry trade group that spearheaded the legal opposition to the waste prevention rule, said she doesn’t think people understand the rule, and that all the methane rule does is add red tape and make it costly to do what the industry already is doing – reducing emissions on its own.

“The problem with the BLM rule and the reason we’re in court to stop it is the BLM is attempting to regulate air quality and it’s not an air quality regulator,” Sgamma said. “The state and the EPA has authority to regulate air quality, but not the BLM.”

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