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'BLM ignored' statutory mandate under Mineral Leasing Act: court

Bureau found not to have complied with Administrative Procedure Act

New York — The US Bureau of Land Management's rationale behind cancelling the bulk of Obama administration-era regulations of methane from oil and natural gas sources on public lands was "wholly inadequate," a federal judge has ruled.

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"In its haste, BLM ignored its statutory mandate under the Mineral Leasing Act, repeatedly failed to justify numerous reversals in policy positions previously taken, and failed to consider scientific findings and institutions relied upon by both prior Republican and Democratic administrations," said Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, according to a July 15 court order.

In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the BLM finalized the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations on federal lands. The Trump administration issued a final methane rule in 2018 revising the Obama-era regulations, a move that was immediately challenged by environmental groups.

Gonzalez Rogers determined that leaving the 2018 Trump administration rule in place would likely cause more environmental harm than vacating it, according to the order. The judge rescinded the Trump administration's rule and re-implemented the Obama-era methane rule, staying that move for 90 days following the July 15 order.

The Trump administration's rule did not adequately demonstrate that re-implementing the Obama rule would have "disruptive effects," and even notes that "compliance costs are but a small fraction of operator profits," Gonzalez Rogers wrote.

The BLM under the Trump administration had to provide a "reasoned explanation for its abrupt reversal" on the methane rule and meet obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, "by considering the impacts of its rulemaking on the environment both thoroughly and thoughtfully," according to Gonzalez Rogers.

"Instead, in its zeal, BLM simply engineered a process to ensure a preordained conclusion," she wrote. "Where a court has found such widespread violations, the court must fulfill its duties in striking the defectively promulgated rule."

Gonzalez Rogers also determined that the bureau's rulemaking process did not comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, or APA, noting that such violations in conjunction with violations under NEPA "are far from minor."

"BLM systematically ignored the basics of rulemaking and steamrolled over the APA and NEPA framework to advance certain special interests," according to the order. "Such conduct should not be condoned."

BLM spokesman Derrick Henry said July 16 that the bureau completely disagreed with the court's ruling.

"Our commonsense deregulatory actions were lawful and based on the best available science," Henry said in a statement. "The department will continue to implement President Trump's agenda to create more American jobs, protect the safety of American workers, support domestic energy production and conserve our environment."

Lissa Lynch, an attorney for the climate and energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of many conservation groups that sued the BLM over its rule, called the ruling another "blistering opinion" reiterating that the administration cannot ignore procedural requirements.

"The chickens are coming home to roost for the Bureau of Land Management," Lynch said in a July 16 statement. "The waste prevention rule is a commonsense protection that holds the oil and gas industry accountable for uncontrolled leaking of methane — pollution that harms public health and fuels climate change."