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BLM intends to suspend key parts of methane rule until 2019

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BLM intends to suspend key parts of methane rule until 2019

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Oct. 4 detailed its plans for suspending key parts of a rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands.

The agency announced earlier this year that it would suspend the regulation but left some of the specifics, including the timeline, undefined. The new plans, released by the BLM on Oct. 4, said the agency would delay certain provisions of the regulation until Jan. 17, 2019.

The BLM estimated the rule suspension would cut compliance costs by up to $114 million in the first year that the provisions were delayed. The rule delay would also cause a reduction in benefits in that same time period, BLM said, cutting potential cost savings by about $19 million and resulting in 175,000 tons of additional methane emissions that would have been avoided with the regulation in place.

The BLM proposal is slated for publication in the Federal Register on Oct. 5. The agency plans to take comment for 30 days.

Environmental groups have sued over BLM's plans to suspend the rule. They slammed the agency's recent proposal.

"This is little more than a giveaway to the worst-operated companies in the oil and gas industry," Matt Watson, Environmental Defense Fund's associate vice president of climate and energy, said in an Oct. 4 statement. "It comes at the direct expense of taxpayers and tribal communities, who own these resources, and to the distinct disadvantage of energy companies that are trying to operate responsibly."

The methane regulation, finalized in 2016, restricts venting, flaring and leaking on federal and tribal lands. The rule was expected to reduce methane emissions in these areas by 35% from 2014 estimates.

Industry groups have challenged the regulation, arguing that it is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's job to address emissions issues, not the bureau's. Under the Obama administration, the BLM contended that methane was within the agency's purview, because the regulation dealt with preserving publicly owned natural resources and minimizing waste. Environmental advocates have also taken that position.

A presidential executive order aimed at supporting the energy sector, along with industry concerns about costs, the prescriptive nature of some requirements and potential overlap with other regulations, prompted the BLM to take a second look.

"The BLM is concerned that the [regulatory impact analysis] for the 2016 final rule may have underestimated costs and overestimated benefits, and is therefore presently reviewing that analysis for potential inaccuracies," the BLM said in its rule suspension proposal. "In any event, the [regulatory impact analysis] for the 2016 rule indicates that the rule poses a substantial burden on industry, particularly those requirements that are set to become effective on January 17, 2018. The BLM found that some provisions of the rule appear to add regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation."

The agency said it intends to delay provisions of the 2016 final rule that, among other elements, set a gas capture percentage requirement to reduce routine flaring; instructed operators to develop waste-minimization plans; required operators to estimate or measure all flared and vented gas; required more efficient pneumatic equipment in some cases; and established leak detection, repair and reporting requirements.

The BLM expressed concern that the requirement of a waste-minimization plan would generate "lengthy, unenforceable" reporting that would bog down the bureau. It questioned whether the gas capture standard is "unnecessarily complex and whether it will, in fact, be a significant improvement on the requirements." Estimating or measuring flared and vented gas may also put a burden on operators, the BLM said, and the agency is assessing whether it would make more sense to require this only on a case-by-case basis.