WASHINGTON – Fifty-one members of the U.S. Congress filed a legal complaint Thursday against the Trump administration’s effort to roll back a regulation meant to limit methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations on public and tribal lands.
Four Democratic members from Colorado – Reps. Joe Neguse, Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Sen. Michael Bennet – signed on to the amicus brief, which claims the U.S. Department of the Interior violated the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 by lifting many restrictions in the 2016 Methane and Waste Prevention Rule. Clauses in the Mineral Leasing Act say oil and gas leases must “use all reasonable precautions to prevent waste of oil or gas” and provide “for safeguarding of the public welfare.”
The waste prevention rule is an Obama-era regulation that aimed to ensure oil and gas operators capture as much methane as possible without letting it leak, vent or flare into the atmosphere. After an executive order by President Donald Trump, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management weakened the rule, which allowed oil and gas operators to freely emit methane.
Revising the rule was part of an effort to “reduce the regulatory burden on the American people and foster economic growth and energy development,” according to a BLM news release.
“When methane is released into the atmosphere it becomes one of the leading contributors to global warming,” said DeGette on a conference call with reporters. “If we’re going to be serious about fixing the climate crisis, we have to be serious about curbing the release of methane into the atmosphere.”
Oil and gas operations pay royalties on the methane they capture on public lands. But the government can’t collect royalties on wasted methane that leaks into the air. Lawmakers were concerned that this loss of revenue would affect their states.
“Many of us come from states that depend heavily on oil and gas royalties. Public lands and their resources belong to the people, not to private entities,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
In 2014, NASA discovered that the methane cloud over the Four Corners had the highest concentration of methane anywhere in the country. The cloud was caused by oil and gas drilling in northwestern New Mexico, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said on the conference call.
“Without a strong BLM methane rule, I cannot protect the public health of the residents in (La Plata) County,” Lachelt said. “The (Trump) administration’s attacks on common-sense methane standards directly undermine taxpayers and communities’ well-being by denying us revenues that would help fund critical infrastructure projects.”
Lawmakers were confident they would win in court. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., referenced several setbacks the Trump administration has suffered in trying to ease environmental regulations. For instance, in March, a federal judge blocked an attempt by the administration to drill for oil and gas offshore in the Arctic. In April, a federal judge ruled the Interior Department illegally tried to lift a moratorium on coal mining on public lands.
The Trump administration has a general disregard for the law, Grijalva said, especially when it comes to the environment and public lands.
“Thankfully, they are also incredibly careless, and they have lost numerous times in court,” he said.
James Marshall is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.