Environmental groups seek to defend federal methane rule

AP News
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Posted: Dec 06, 2016 7:28 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Environmental groups are seeking to defend a new federal rule that would restrict how oil companies burn off excess natural gas extracted from public lands.

Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota are pressing a federal lawsuit in Wyoming seeking to block a rule that President Barack Obama's administration issued in November requiring certain companies to capture natural gas instead of burning it off.

The states argue that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management lacks authority over air quality issues and claim the rule would reduce state revenues.

"The BLM is once again overstepping its bounds and imposing unnecessary regulations," Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said in a statement last month. "Congress has delegated regulation of air pollution to the states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, not BLM. Wyoming has successfully regulated air pollution emissions from oil and gas activities for over 20 years and has effective limitations on venting and flaring of natural gas."

Fifteen groups including national environmental organizations are asking U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Wyoming to allow them to intervene to support the BLM rule. He hasn't ruled yet on the request.

The following groups are petitioning to intervene in the case: Wyoming Outdoor Council; Center for Biological Diversity; Citizens for a Healthy Community; Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment; Environmental Defense Fund; Environmental Law & Policy Center; Montana Environmental Information Center; National Wildlife Federation; Natural Resources Defense Council; San Juan Citizens Alliance; Sierra Club; The Wilderness Society; Western Organization of Resource Councils; Wilderness Workshop; and WildEarth Guardians.

Energy companies frequently "flare," or burn off, large volumes of natural gas at drilling sites because it makes less money than oil. The new rule requires energy companies that drill on nearly 250 million acres of federal lands to capture natural gas. Federal officials have said that between 2009 and 2014, enough natural gas was lost through venting, flaring and leaks to power more than 5 million homes for a year. Capturing the gas instead of burning it also would generate tens of millions a year in additional federal revenues, they said.

Laura King is staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, Montana, which represents several of the groups.

"Currently the oil and gas industry releases methane into the sky, burns it off unused, and loses it through leaky infrastructure," King said Tuesday. "These industry norms create a public health liability, waste a public resource reduce royalty income for taxpayers and exacerbate climate change."

King said the rule would require the industry to tidy up their operations using existing affordable technology, creating jobs in the process. "The public benefits of the rule are clear," she said.

Skavdahl has set a hearing for Jan. 6 on a request from Wyoming and Montana for a court order blocking the rule. North Dakota filed another, similar request for an injunction on Monday.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump has said he will seek to sharply increase oil and gas drilling on federal lands. He said on the campaign trail that restrictions supported by Obama hurt energy-producing states. But although Trump could rescind the rule once he takes office next month, doing so would likely take months.

King said it's unclear what's going to happen with the rule once Trump takes office. "We're moving one step at a time," she said. "I'd say that our intervention is an extension of the role that we've played for years, of advocating for these readily available methane waste prevention measures that will protect public health and the environment."