Opinion

Senators' balking over a rollback of new methane rules is a heartening development

With a little more encouragement — or, more accurately, an intensifying headwind of angry voters — Senate Republicans might actually do the right thing and squelch an effort to undo crucial Obama administration regulations to control methane emissions from oil and gas wells drilled on federal lands.

The Obama administration adopted rules that would require drillers to take steps to capture 41 billion cubic feet of methane that escapes each year from 100,000 wells on federal land. Beyond the loss of usable gas, taxpayers also lose about $23 million in missed royalties because the gas isn’t brought to market. And the damage to the environment is considerable: Methane released into the atmosphere is one of the most potent accelerators of global warming.

The oil and gas industry complains that capturing the escaping methane would be too expensive, but the federal Bureau of Land Management argues this: “Many oil and gas operators are voluntarily taking steps proposed in the rule to reduce wasted gas and improve operations. The BLM estimates that the annual cost to industry of implementing the rule will be $125 [million]-$161 million. Individual, small business operators may see profit margins reduced by roughly one-tenth of one percent, on average. About 40 percent of natural gas now vented or flared from onshore Federal leases could be economically captured with currently available technologies, according to the 2010 GAO report.”

And if consumers have to pay a little more to properly reflect the cost of delivering oil and natural gas, so be it.

The Times Editorial Board weighed in on the issue a few weeks back and urged the Senate to apply the brakes to this. The regulations were adopted in the final stretch of the Obama administration, close enough to the end of his term that Congress can block them through the Congressional Review Act, which until Trump’s arrival was a relatively little-used mechanism to undercut regulations.

The House already has voted to roll back the regulations, and the Senate remains the only place in which the bill might be beat (the anti-regulation Trump is expected to sign it). This is what the board had to say when it urged the regulations be allowed to remain in place:

“The Senate should refuse to join the House in passing this irresponsible bill. The methane regulations, which are to be phased in, are good, sensible policy. The federal Bureau of Land Management estimated that between 2009 and 2015, the oil and gas industry wasted, through emissions or flaring, 462 billion cubic feet of methane — enough to supply natural gas for 6.2 million households for a year — from wells in public and tribal lands. Not only was the gas lost, the unburned methane went directly into the atmosphere. And taxpayers missed out on $23 million a year in royalties that would have been due had the methane been captured and sold.

“Fortunately, the EPA rules governing non-federal land wells are less likely to be rescinded. The rules were adopted long enough ago that they are no longer subject to the Congressional Review Act, which means that to roll them back, the Trump administration would have to go through a lengthy regulatory review process. Unfortunately, those rules only cover future wells, not existing ones. (The federal land rules cover both.) Instead of attacking the federal land rules, Congress should extend the same regulations to the existing wells on non-federal land. But don’t hold your breath.”

According to the story by Times staff writer Evan Halper, there’s no talk of expanding the regulations, as the board hoped, but there is growing skittishness among Republican senators facing criticism by a cross-section of constituents, including ranchers, fearing the effects of unfettered emissions. And the voices are getting heard. Per Halper:

“Supervisors in … La Plata County, Colo., passed a resolution calling on Congress to abandon the rollback. More than 80% of the people in Western states including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming support the Obama-era mandate, according to a Colorado College poll taken in December.

“The political tension has left many Republican senators wavering, as they struggle with the potential fallout of going after a signature Obama administration climate change policy that — like many others — has a constituency that extends far beyond climate hawks.”

As the senators waver, that constituent headwind becomes all the more forceful and important.

Scott.Martelle@LATimes.com

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