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Federal judge halts Trump administration move to abandon Obama-era methane rule

A federal judge in San Francisco blocked a Trump administration effort to halt implementation of the 2016 methane Waste Prevention Rule on federal and tribal lands.

In a Feb. 22 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Orrick issued a preliminary injunction preventing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from delaying implementation of the rule, originally put in place a week after the 2016 presidential election. Since President Donald Trump came into office, the BLM has twice attempted to halt implementation of the rule, only to have those delays overturned in court.

The plaintiffs in the case, which include the state of California and numerous environmental groups, have claimed that the Obama-era rule would prevent hundreds of thousands of tons of methane from being sent into the atmosphere. In court documents, the BLM and groups including the Western Energy Alliance said the amount of methane vented by drilling activity on federal and tribal lands is "infinitesimal."

"The BLM's reasoning behind the suspension rule is untethered to evidence contradicting the reasons for implementing the waste prevention rule, and so plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits," Orrick said in his ruling. "They have shown irreparable injury caused by the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts."

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the BLM, however, have already announced plans to do away with the rule entirely. In a Feb. 12 statement, the agency declared the rule to be "punitive" and opened a 60-day window for public comment, meaning the controversial rule could be on the chopping block as soon as April.

In its December 2017 announcement that it was finalizing suspension of critical portions of the waste prevention rule, the BLM estimated that the delay would postpone industry compliance costs of $110 million and $114 million in the first year alone. Orrick rejected those claims in his ruling as "baseless."

Environmental groups applauded Orrick's decision. "This is a great win for taxpayers, public health, and the environment," said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center. "Together with Wyoming federal court's denial of industry's request to halt implementation, the Senate's rejection of a Congressional Review Act repeal, and the U.S. District Court's ruling against indefinite methane rule suspension, it's increasingly clear [Zinke] and the BLM are on the wrong side of the law."