EDITORIALS

Republicans want to undo a rule that protects taxpayers and the environment

Posted March 11, 2017, at 8:24 a.m.
Last modified March 12, 2017, at 7:30 a.m.

A regulation that protects taxpayers, improves the environment and could save corporations money sounds like a winning combination. But not with this Congress.

In its waning days, the Obama administration put in place rules limiting the amount of natural gas that can be vented or flared on federal and tribal lands to reduce methane emissions. The aim of the Bureau of Land Management rule, which was modeled after rules developed by the state of Colorado, was to ensure as much methane as possible is captured and sent to a processing facility to become part of the nation’s natural gas supply.

Natural gas is flared, or burned, when a drilling operation extracts more gas than it can handle or the operation is focused on extracting oil. With equipment changes, more gas could be captured rather than wasted. The BLM rule sought to reduce waste through flaring and unrepaired leaks. In 2015, there were more than 94,000 working or potential oil and gas wells on federal land, mostly in the west.

BLM estimates that about 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas were flared or leaked on public and tribal lands between 2009 and 2014. That’s enough gas to supply more than 5 million homes a year, it said.

This gas would be worth $330 million if it were processed and sold. The revenue from selling this gas would surpass the cost of upgrading equipment by at least $115 million a year, according to BLM.

Underground natural gas and oil on federal land belongs to the American people. When it is extracted and sold, the federal government, states and tribes receive royalties. The BLM estimates that Americans lose $23 million annually in royalties on natural gas that is flared or leaked into the environment.

Methane, a major component of natural gas, is much more effective at trapping the Earth’s heat than carbon dioxide. One third of the nation’s methane emissions come from oil and gas operations. So, capturing more methane is better for the environment and the long-term health of humans.

For all these reasons, the new methane rules, issued by the BLM in November, made sense.

Now, Republicans in Congress are trying to overturn them using the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to review — and potentially undo — administrative agency rules for 60 legislative days. Prior to this Congress, the act has been used only once to undo a rule, a set of workplace ergonomic standards developed by the Clinton administration.

Agencies cannot later introduce rules that are similar to those that have been repealed. So if the natural gas rules are overturned, the damage would be permanent.

The methane rule rollback was passed by the House last month. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican voted for it. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, voted no.

The Republican-backed rollback, fortunately, has run into roadblocks in the Senate. Republican Sen. Susan Collins opposes the rollback effort because of the health and environmental threats of methane in addition to the waste of taxpayer resources from venting, flaring, and leaks. She has sponsored legislation to speed up the adoption of super pollutant-reducing technologies and policies.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also opposes killing the rule; Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, has yet to pledge his support for the rollback.

Sen. Angus King is adamantly opposed. “I believe use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn the regulation is an overly blunt approach that would preclude any similar efforts in the future to reduce this costly waste,” he said in a statement sent to the BDN.

Undoing a rule that reduces dangerous pollution, reduces waste of a public resource and could increase corporate profits is the kind of partisan, special-interest politics that have so angered American voters and made them cynical about politics.

 

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