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US Interior finalizes changes to federal lands methane rule

Washington — The US Interior Department unveiled Tuesday afternoon final revisions to an Obama-era rule aimed at curbing methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations on federal lands.

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Environmental groups have pledged to fight the changes in court.

"This common-sense rule is needed to curb smog-forming, cancer-causing, and climate-warming air pollution leaking from oil and gas facilities across the country," David Doniger with the Natural Resource Defense Council said in a statement Tuesday. "We will continue to fight in court to ensure people and the planet come before powerful polluters."

The rule, known as the Waste Prevention Rule and finalized by the Obama administration in November 2016, set up new requirements for oil and gas producers to use "currently available technologies and processes" to cut flaring from oil wells in half on public and tribal lands.

The rule set up new leak inspection and equipment replacement requirements, limited venting from storage tanks and set up a new system for when operators owe royalties on flared gas, giving the government authority to set royalty rates at or above 12.5% of the value of production.

Industry groups and the states of North Dakota, Texas, Wyoming and Montana have sued to overturn the rule, arguing that it would shut in oil and gas production on federal lands.

In May 2017, a Republican attempt to repeal the rule failed in the Senate by a 51-49 vote after then-Senator John McCain, Republican-Arizona, unexpectedly voted against overturning it.

In February, Interior announced proposed revisions to the rule, claiming the 2016 rule "underestimated" the economic impact of venting and flaring limits on operations and also said there was "considerable overlap" between the rule and existing state regulations.

In a call with reporters Tuesday, Katharine MacGregor, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said the changes finalized Tuesday were aimed at reducing conflicts with regulations of states, tribes and other federal agencies. MacGregor said the methane rule, as finalized by the Obama administration, would have impacted marginal oil and gas wells the most. Interior officials declined to comment Tuesday on the amount of oil and gas output on federal lands which would have been impacted by the original rule.

The final revisions of Interior's methane rule follow a September 11 Environmental Protection Agency announcement that it will roll back Obama-era requirements for oil and gas producers to limit methane emissions.

The Obama administration had developed those requirements to limit leaks of methane from oil and gas operations, but industry had argued that that the rules were costly, burdensome and an overreach of federal power.

The Trump administration also has formally proposed weakening Obama-era fuel economy standards.

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Gail Roberts, gail.roberts@spglobal.com