The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday voted to repeal a rule curbing methane emissions on public lands, delivering a win, say environmental groups, to big oil and cronies of President Donald Trump.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regulation, finalized under the Obama administration in November, limited methane venting, flaring, and leaks from fossil fuel production on federal and tribal lands, thereby aiming to "avoid wasting up to 41 billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas per year," as Reuters wrote at the time. The Associated Press adds Friday: "A government report said about 40 percent of gas being flared or vented could be captured economically and sold."
Lukas Ross, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FOE), calls this "royalty-free" release of natural gas "one of the most over-looked fossil fuel subsidies on the books."
To axe the regulation, Republicans used the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which, according to Jeremy Martin, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, "is a dirty trick that Congress can use to do the oil industry's bidding." Martin explains that it
allows Congress, with a simple majority, to completely revoke any rules made in the last 6 months of the Obama administration. It is a blunt tool that would revoke regulations that went through extensive stakeholder review, used evidence-based science, had public notice and comment, and took a few years on average to be finalized.
In addition, it stipulates that any rule that is similar to the rule can NEVER be done again, unless Congress gives explicit permission—thus salting the earth.
While Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) declared the methane rule a "needless burden on American families," FOE's Ross points out that
[f]laring produces climate-warming CO₂, as well as co-pollutants like soot and black carbon, while venting sends the super-potent greenhouse gas methane directly into the atmosphere, where it inflicts 86 times the global warming potential of CO₂ over a 20-year time span.
On top of that, says Josh Mantell, energy campaign manager with The Wilderness Society: "If left alone to do its job, [the methane rule] will return over $800 million in royalties to American taxpayers over the next decade."
Yet, says Ross, with the rule strike-down, "They are giving away a taxpayer-owned resource for free."
So who exactly would benefit from its repeal? FOE sought the answer to that question, filing in 2015 a freedom of information (FOIA) request with the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR). The agency provided data, which, Ross writes, shows
total volumes for gas flared, vented, and beneficially used on public lands for the decade from 2004 to 2014. If the new rule is partly designed to capture royalties from losses like these, then these numbers are the best and only picture of who stands to gain from its repeal, and by how much.
Among the highlights, as noted by FOE:
- ExxonMobil and its subsidiary XTO received over 40 million mcfs [million cubic fee] of free natural gas throughout the dataset, totaling over 38 million mcfs of onsite use and 2.5 million mcfs of flaring. The estimated market value for the lost gas is over $203 million and the flaring alone is the climate change equivalent to burning over 330,000 barrels of oil.
- Incoming EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is so friendly with fracking giant Devon Energy that he copy-and-pasted a complaint they wrote to the EPA onto his letterhead as Oklahoma Attorney General. The company received 17 million mcfs of natural gas throughout the dataset, totaling 14.45 million mcfs of onsite use and 2.8 million mcfs of flaring. The total value of lost gas is estimated at over $83 million.
- Encana Energy is a client of Michael Catanzaro, a Koch-connected lobbyist who helped manage Trump's energy transition. The company received 20.1 million mcfs of natural gas throughout the dataset totaling an estimated market value of over $102 million. This includes over 137,000 mcfs of venting and 1.1 million mcfs of flaring—the climate change equivalent to burning nearly 70 million pounds of coal.
"If Congress and the GOP vote to stop this common sense regulation, some of the clearest winners will be the Big Oil cronies closest to Trump," says Ross.
Mantell adds: "Today's vote in the House to repeal BLM's wasted gas rule was a win for the American Petroleum Institute, the Koch Brothers, and oil and gas CEOs, but it was a loss for the American people."