Department of the Interior Kills Rule to Prevent Methane Waste on Public Lands

By John McFerrin

The United States Department of the Interior has eliminated a rule that would reduce the leaking of methane from wells on public land. The rule being eliminated would have both reduced emissions and increased revenue from gas produced on public lands.

The rule had survived Congressional and Legislative efforts to kill it.  At least in this round, it was not so lucky.

The problem

The main manager of land that the federal government owns is the Bureau of Land Management, a part of the Department of Interior.  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. At the time the regulation was first proposed, the United States Department of the Interior estimated that leaks cost the United States $330 million in lost royalties each year.

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.

The solution

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.

Problem solved. Less wasted gas, fewer methane emissions, United States gets royalties on gas that otherwise would have just floated away on the winds.

Unfixing the problem—first try

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.

In the Senate, however, it was a different story. With Senator Manchin and three Republicans voting against, the resolution did not pass.  The original regulation went into effect as planned.

Unfixing the problem—second try

            In June, 2017, the Department of Interior announced that it was going to rescind the rule indefinitely.  In doing so, it relied upon a provision of the federal Administrative Procedure Act which allows agencies to rescind rules which have not yet taken effect.

Litigation followed.  In October, 2017, a United States District Court ruled that the Department of Interior could not rescind the methane rule.  Because the rule had gone into effect in January the Department could not rescind it.

Unfixing the problem—third try

For those who opposed the rule, the third time was the charm.  The Department of the Interior has finalized plans to roll back the rule.  In announcing the roll back, the Department spokesman said the rule being eliminated would ““unnecessarily encumber energy production, constraining growth and preventing job creation.”

Meanwhile, over at the Environmental Protection Agency…

The rule discussed in the adjoining story only applies to gas on public lands.  The Bureau of Land Management (a part of the Department of the Interior) is involved because it manages land the United States owns.  The announcement from the Department of the Interior discussed in the adjoining story comes a week after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved to roll back a separate methane regulation that sought to limit release of the gas from drilling nationwide on all lands, both public and private.