Environmental groups intervene to defend federal methane rule

Fifteen state, regional, tribal and national groups, including one from southwestern Colorado, have filed a legal motion with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to intervene on behalf of the agency’s new methane rule, which is being challenged by an industry-led lawsuit.

On Nov. 15, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the BLM’s Methane Waste and Prevention Rule. It is aimed at curbing billions of cubic feet of methane emissions and billions waste on public and tribal lands. The rule limits methane loss by venting, leaking and flaring and is intended to both improve public health and provide taxpayers with a better return on the public resource.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is both a valuable natural resource and a potent greenhouse gas, more than 20 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide. But energy companies frequently flare, or burn off, large quantities of natural gas at production sites because it’s less profitable than oil.

The BLM reports that enough of the gas was wasted between 2009 and 2015 to power more than six million households for a year. According to a 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office, wasted methane not only costs the industry money in lost revenue, but causes states, tribes and federal taxpayers to lose millions of dollars in royalties each year.

Less than an hour after the rule was announced, two oil and gas trade associations, Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana alleging that the BLM was overstepping its authority in trying to regulate air quality. That power, they claim, rests solely with the Environmental Protection Agency. Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota have also challenged the rule. (Colorado, which became the first state to adopt its own oil and gas methane regulations in 2014, has not joined the suit.)

“If the BLM had stayed within their authority with this rule, we wouldn’t be suing,” Kathleen Sgamma, the new president of Western Energy Alliance, told The Colorado Independent. “Instead, they went and assumed EPA-like, Clean Air Act authority.”

Environmental groups disagree. On Dec. 2, 15 groups filed a motion with the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming requesting to enter the case on the side of BLM to defend the new rule. Groups include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and San Juan Citizens Alliance, a group based in Durango.

Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate program manager for San Juan Citizens Alliance, says methane waste is not just bad for the environment, but bad for oil and gas companies. “Why would you not want to capture that?” he asked. “At what point do these trade organizations or industry-backed associations take some responsibility to think about the bigger picture?”

Mike Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice who is representing the environmental groups in their intervention, says “there’s absolutely no merit” to the lawsuit against the BLM.

“Their basic argument is that this rule effectively regulates air quality, and that air quality regulation is the purview of other agencies, like the EPA and state agencies,” Freeman explains. “But the law is very clear that regulatory authority is not an either/or proposition. Different federal state agencies regulate different aspects of the same activity all the time.”

As an example, Freeman cited water quality control: The BLM manages cattle grazing to ensure that grazing activities don’t impact streams on federal lands, but those same streams are also under the management of the Clean Water Act. According to Freeman, what the BLM is doing is “neither unusual nor inappropriate.”

Sgamma argues that in addition to overstepping its authority, the BLM is imposing unmanageable requirements on the oil and gas industry, calling the new regulations “too prescriptive and too expensive.”

The extra costs, she says, will hinder new oil and gas development and shut down wells, which will ultimately lead to more pollution in the form of dirtier coal-fired power plants down the road. Energy experts, however, say it is renewable energy sources, not coal, that are on track to compete with natural gas.

Freeman also disagrees with Sgamma’s characterization of the new rule as economically unfeasible, pointing to the extreme wealth of the industry trade association groups. “This is not a mom-and-pop company struggling,” he says.

The BLM does not comment on litigation, but Steven Hall, communications director for BLM Colorado, said, “Obviously the BLM established the rule, and thus believed the rule was appropriate. We’ll let the legal system take it from here.”

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl has yet to rule on the environmental groups’ request to intervene. Notably, Skavdahl sided with the oil and gas industry last June when he ruled that the BLM did not have the authority to establish rules over fracking on federal and tribal lands.


Photo credit: Tim Hurst, Creative Commons, Flickr