More than two weeks ago, House Republicans rejected a 2016 Bureau of Land Management rule designed to reduce the methane that oil and gas companies send into the atmosphere or burn up in flares. But the Senate, entangled in debates over Cabinet nominees, has not acted yet. In the meantime, at least three Republican senators have given themselves wiggle room about how they expect to vote if a vote is held after a week in their states for President’s Day recess.
The delay is giving hope to supporters of the rule that it may yet withstand the broad effort underway by congressional Republicans to erase rules completed in the last weeks of the Obama administration. Other congressional observers caution that this optimism is premature and the rule likely will be repealed once the Senate takes care of bigger priorities, like confirming President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
The Methane and Waste Prevention rule, an important part of former President Barack Obama’s climate change agenda, requires oil and gas producers to limit flaring, detect leaks in equipment, and capture gas instead of venting it to the air. On federal and Indian lands between 2009 and 2015, oil and gas producers wasted 462 billion cubic feet of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by releasing it to the air or flaring it. That’s enough to supply 6.2 million households for a year, according to BLM. Companies don’t pay royalties to the government for the methane they vent or flare, so the practice costs the government tens of millions of dollars annually in royalties.
The Senate had hoped to vote on the rule this week, but congressional progress has slowed due to controversy over Trump’s Cabinet picks. Some representatives of conservation groups working to protect the rule hope that the delay in Senate action is giving Republicans a chance to consider public opinion. What’s resonating most, they say, is the idea that companies are wasting a public resource; methane is natural gas, which is worth money to taxpayers.
Some polls suggest broad backing for the rule. A Colorado College State of the Rockies poll released in late January surveyed people by telephone in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada. Eighty percent—including a large majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents—expressed support for the rule when asked whether they favor continuing “to require oil and gas producers who operated on national public lands to use updated equipment and technology to prevent leaks of methane gas during the extraction process and reduce the need to burn off excess natural gas into the air.”
“Those are the kinds of numbers that get attention; it shows this is not a 50-50 idea,” says Joshua Mantell, energy campaign manager for the Wilderness Society. Four weeks ago, Mantell had little hope for the methane rule. But he has been encouraged by the polls, as well as news reports that Republican senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio were undecided about how they’d vote on the repeal. Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate, 52 out of 100 seats, so every vote counts. Under the Congress Review Act, senators can’t filibuster a vote, so Republicans only need a majority to repeal the rule.
Jon Goldstein, a senior policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, says the rule has “tremendous grassroots support in the region.” He adds, “the fact that a vote hasn’t been forced yet may indicate that these senators are hearing that tremendous support for the rule exists.”
“I think people view this (rule) as a reasonable safeguard for air quality,” says Lori Weigel, a pollster for Public Opinion Strategies, who worked on the poll. “It’s supported strongly even in very energy conscious states like Wyoming.”
Outside of Gardner’s office in Durango, Colorado, on Tuesday, some 150 demonstrators called on the senator to protect the rule and public lands, according to Durango Herald reporter Jonathan Romeo. Gardner said in a statement that he’s still meeting with Coloradans to hear their views about the rule. But he stressed that even if the BLM methane rule is repealed, producers in Colorado still have to fix methane leaks under a state rule. “The state’s solution would remain in effect and serve as an example to other states of what can be achieved when states work to find answers that best fit the needs of local interests,” he said.
Colorado does have a strong rule to fix methane leaks. However, it doesn’t limit flaring, as the BLM rule does. Methane, meanwhile, doesn’t recognize state lines. Conservation groups stress that Coloradans still would suffer from air pollution from oil and gas production in Utah’s Uinta Basin and New Mexico’s San Juan Basin.
Not all conservationists share their colleagues’ optimism about the rule. The delay, they say, merely reflects the Senate’s crowded schedule. The Senate has had much less time to repeal Obama’s rules than the House because the Senate is responsible for confirming nominees and Democrats have stalled votes on nominees. Still one leader of a conservation group who lobbies Congress predicts GOP Senate leaders will get to the vote before time runs out under the Congressional Review Act. By then, they will have corralled their troops. “They do have the votes to kill it,” said the leader of a conservation group who didn’t want to be quoted on the record.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the trade group Western Energy Alliance, argues the rule should be repealed because the Obama administration was “overreaching” and didn’t have time to complete the process of regulating methane from existing oil and gas production through the Environmental Protection Agency. “BLM doesn’t have air pollution authority,” she says, “EPA does.”
That may be true, but BLM does have authority to prevent companies from wasting public resources, Autumn Hanna, a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Commonsense, says. Her group has been meeting with senators and staffers to persuade them not to repeal the rule with the Congressional Review Act, because that would block the agency from enacting a “substantially similar” rule in the future. “We’ll be locked into 30-year-old rules for years if we take the drastic action of using the (Congressional Review Act) to axe the whole rule,” says Hanna, whose group complies reports on taxpayers’ growing losses due to flaring and venting on public lands.
Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN's DC Dispatches from Washington. Follow @shogrene