Colorado Congresswoman DeGette aims to force Trump’s hand on methane rules

A BLM intern works to identify idle oil wells and urge operators to either put them back in production or plug them permanently. Abandoned oil and gas wells can be pathways for methane to leak into the atmosphere. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management)
A BLM intern works to identify abandoned oil wells and urge operators to either put them back in production or plug them permanently. (Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management)

WASHINGTON — Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) is pushing legislation that would reverse some of the Trump administration’s oil and gas policies on federal lands.

 The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing earlier this week on DeGette’s bill. The proposal, based on state policy from Colorado, would require oil and gas companies to capture methane emissions. It would restore an Obama-era mandate that the Trump administration overturned.

 “If we are going to be serious about solving the climate crisis and be responsible stewards of our public’s resources, then we have to be serious about stopping the release of methane into our atmosphere,” DeGette told the committee today.

 At issue is methane that escapes when producers drill wells for oil and gas. DeGette wants to stop the industry practice of burning the methane or simply letting it leak into the atmosphere, and require the industry to capture it instead. 

 Methane can be up to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is a major component of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But when captured, it can be used in natural gas to generate electricity or heat homes.

 During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency put regulations in place to limit the methane released at wells. But the Trump administration overturned the BLM rules last year and drafted a rollback for the EPA regulations.

 DeGette’s bill would reinstate and expand on the Obama-era rules. It would set a three-year deadline for oil and gas producers operating on public lands to capture 85 percent of all methane that reaches the surface. Within five years, they would need to capture 99 percent of methane.

 Industry leaders said the restrictions go too far.

 “All taken together this would continue to increase the cost of doing business on federal lands,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance. Sgamma said a lower percentage might be more reasonable, like requirements in North Dakota to capture 85 to 93 percent of emissions.

 Colorado passed its own stringent statewide restrictions for methane in 2014. Since then, the state has measured a 55-percent reduction in emissions in the largest oil and gas producing areas, even while production has tripled, according to John Putnam, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment. Putnam said federal restrictions are needed to address the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change.

 “The airsheds don’t respect state boundaries. We are still subject to air coming in from other states,” Putnam said. “We need a national standard because we share a natural resource.”

 Between 2009 and 2015, before the Obama rules came into effect, oil and gas producers operating on public and tribal lands released approximately 462 billion cubic feet of methane gas into the atmosphere – enough to meet the natural gas needs of every household in Colorado for more than three years, according to DeGette.