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Methane emissions rule in limbo

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Methane emissions rule in limbo

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is finalizing the suspension of key parts of the agency's 2016 methane waste prevention rule, even while major oil and gas producers take the initiative to cut their emissions.

"The BLM has concerns regarding the statutory authority, cost, complexity, feasibility, and other implications of the 2016 final rule, and therefore intends to avoid imposing likely considerable and immediate compliance costs on operators for requirements that may be rescinded or significantly revised in the near future," the agency said in a notice for publication in the Federal Register.

The bureau acknowledged that its final delay rule temporarily suspends or delays almost all of the requirements in the 2016 final rule that were expected to result in gas savings or reductions in methane emissions. The BLM said the delay would translate to an additional 175,000 tons of methane and 250,000 tons of volatile organic compound emissions during the year the rule provisions are on hold. The agency predicted a $2.6 million royalty reduction associated with the delay, as well.

The BLM plans to use the extra year to analyze the rule's costs and benefits.

The agency estimated that the delay would translate to a postponement of $110 million to $114 million in compliance costs during the first year and total reductions in compliance costs of between $40 million and $91 million over 2017-2027.

The public had 30 days to comment on the agency's plans for postponing the regulation. While many in the industry expressed support for the proposal — especially if it would give the bureau time to re-evaluate whether the rule's provisions are cost-effective — others highlighted concerns.

To clear its path, the BLM is also appealing a federal court's October ruling that the agency could not carry out the suspension. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said the BLM had broken the law in trying to postpone the compliance date for key parts of a rule limiting methane emissions from federal and tribal land.

The BLM in June said it was suspending the rule indefinitely, but California and New Mexico, along with a number of environmental organizations, sued the agency for trying to delay the regulation without going through the proper process. The court sided with the BLM's opponents, calling the agency's attempt to postpone the rule a "mockery" of the Administrative Procedure Act.

Even without a rule, some of the largest oil and gas producers in the country are pledging to trim methane emissions from their operations, signing up for a voluntary program launched by the industry's most influential trade group.

Though the program was quickly criticized by environmental advocates who questioned its potential effectiveness, the industry said the goal is to track down leaks, repair or replace high-emitting pneumatic devices, and more closely monitor methane emissions while removing liquids from gas wells. The program plans to publish annual scorecards for the companies participating, making public information such as how many leaks were repaired and how many pneumatic controllers were replaced.

When asked whether the program has any specific methane emission reductions targets, in percentages or cubic feet, Erik Milito, upstream and industry operations group director for the American Petroleum Institute, said the program is not focused on figures.

"We focused on action. We could get wrapped around percentages, but we're going to continue to look at the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] data," he said during the call, noting that the program's three specific areas were based on data from the EPA on parts of the oil and gas sector that contribute most to emissions. "This was a very surgical approach we took."

Matt Watson, the Environmental Defense Fund's associate vice president of climate and energy, said that approach is too narrow and the lack of concrete numeric goals reflects a lack of ambition on the industry's part. Watson said even if it had more teeth, the program would not eliminate the need for regulations preventing methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources.

The Sierra Club called the program "a cynical ploy for public goodwill" and criticized the industry for working with the Trump administration to undermine other methane regulations.