Congress Unfixes a Problem

By John McFerrin

Congress is considering and, Congress being Congress these days, probably will take an action that will be a step back in both efforts to curb greenhouse gases and in efforts to make the federal government solvent.  It is considering voiding a rule designed to prevent the waste of natural gas on federal land.

The main manager of land that the federal government owns is the Bureau of Land Management.  Altogether it manages 245 million acres of land and 700 million acres of subsurface estate.

Much of this land has natural gas under it.  In 2015 production from 96,000 onshore gas wells accounted for 11 per cent of the nation’s natural gas supply.  The production value of this oil and gas exceeded $20.9 billion and generated over $2.3 billion in royalties, which were shared with tribes, Indian allottee owners, and States.

One of the problems with this program is that we are wasting a lot of the gas.  Some of it is flared (burned on site), vented (released to the atmosphere) or leaked.  Gas that is leaked, flared, or burned is not sold, depriving the United States of royalties.

Royalty loss is not the only problem.  The wasted gas harms local communities and surrounding areas through visual and noise impacts from flaring, and contributes to regional and global air pollution problems of smog, particulate matter, and toxics (such as benzene, a carcinogen). Vented or leaked gas contributes to climate change, because the primary constituent of natural gas is methane, an especially powerful greenhouse gas  with climate impacts roughly 25 times those of carbon dioxide (CO2), if measured over a 100-year period, or 86 times those of CO2, if measured over a 20-year period. Thus, measures to conserve gas and avoid waste may significantly benefit local communities, public health, and the environment.

To fix these problems, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a rule that would require gas companies to stop or reduce the flaring, venting, and leaking at gas wells and compressor stations on public lands.  After the public comment, etc. that is part of all rulemaking, the rule became final on January 17, 2017.

This was not entirely the Bureau of Land Management’s idea.  The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior (OIG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had both reviewed the leasing program and had raised concerns about waste of gas from Federal and Indian production.

Correcting the problem could be done at a relatively small net cost.  The additional equipment and operational changes required to comply would have a cost.  At the same time, the gas that had been wasted could be sold.  According to Bureau of Land Management estimates, the value of the additional gas captured and sold would not entirely offset the additional cost of compliance. It estimates that gas company profits would decrease by an average of fifteen hundredths of one per cent as a result of the rule.

So, problem solved?  Less gas wasted (my Great Depression era mother would be so pleased), more royalties for the United States, and less greenhouse gasses.  A government agency addressing and fixing a problem.  Another happy ending?

Now for the rest of the story.  Although Mr. Trump did not run on a platform or increased greenhouse gases while collecting less in royalties, gas companies and their friends in Congress saw an opening and took it.  On January 31 a resolution was introduced by Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) voiding the rule.  On February 2 it passed the House, with Congressmen Mooney, Jenkins, and McKinley all voting for it.  An identical resolution was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Barrasso, (R-WY]) with Sen. Capito (R-WV) as a cosponsor.  So far the Senate has taken no action.