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'Be Afraid—Be Very Afraid': Methane Ruling Seen as Ominous Sign With Barrett Poised to Join Supreme Court

The judge delivered a "puzzling and unsupported conclusion that the Bureau of Land Management can't limit methane waste because that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution."

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota.

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A federal court's decision Thursday to strike down an Obama-era rule aimed at reducing methane leaks from fossil fuel operations on public and tribal lands is being seen as a "grave threat to the climate" and possible precursor to the type of corporate-friendly rulings the U.S. Supreme Court will more frequently issue should the GOP-controlled Senate confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

At issue is the 2016 Waste Prevention Rule, which targets release of the potent greenhouse gas and which the Trump administration has sought to roll back.

Judge Stephen Skavdahl of the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming found (pdf) that the "Bureau of Land Management exceeded its statutory authority and acted arbitrarily in promulgating the new regulations"—a ruling that left the oil and gas industry "overjoyed." 

As The Hill reported:

The court argued that although the rule's stated purpose was to reduce waste, it was essentially used to regulate air quality, which is not the job of the BLM.

"Although the stated purpose of the rule is waste prevention, significant aspects of the rule evidence its primary purpose being driven by an effort to regulate air emissions, particularly greenhouse gases," wrote judge Stephen Skavdahl, an Obama appointee.

Skavdahl particularly noted that the rule's cost-benefit analysis only showed the rule to be beneficial "if the ancillary benefits to global climate change are factored in."

"Without these 'indirect' benefits, the costs of the rule likely more than double the benefits every year," he wrote.

Progressive groups were up in arms.

"The court recognized the Department of the Interior's clear authority to prevent harmful natural gas waste and that the measures the department adopted in 2016 would indeed cut waste. Nonetheless, it found the Waste Prevention Rule was unlawful based on its additional air quality benefits for tribal and Western communities," said Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for Environmental Defense Fund, in a statement Thursday.

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"Waste of natural gas on public and tribal lands is a well-documented problem, costing taxpayers and tribes millions of dollars each year," said Zalzal, warning that the ruling stands to "harm tribal and Western communities by increasing the waste of natural gas and reducing revenues that these communities could otherwise use to fund roads and invest in schools and much-needed healthcare programs."

"This ruling is deeply troubling in light of the Department of the Interior's clear responsibility to prevent the waste of public resources in a manner that safeguards public interests," Zalzal added.

Michael Saul, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said his organization was "deeply disappointed by the court's puzzling and unsupported conclusion that the Bureau of Land Management can't limit methane waste because that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution."

"Oil and gas industry waste of methane squanders public resources and poses a grave threat to the climate and air quality," said Saul adding, "We'll fight this."

Beyond the clear impacts regarding planet-warming and toxic emissions, Accoutnable.US says the ruling should set off other "alarm bells" in light of President Donald Trump's pick for the Supreme Court.

The government watchdog group pointed to its analysis from last week showing Coney Barrett sided with corporations 76% of the time during the three years in which she's served on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Be afraid—be very afraid. This is just the type of judicial activism we can expect from Amy Coney Barrett if she is confirmed," warned Accountable.US president Kyle Herrig in a statement Friday.

"An overwhelming majority of the time, Coney Barrett's rules in favor of wealthy corporate interests over the health, safety, and pocketbooks of American families," said Herrig.

"The idea that the nation’s top land and natural resource management agency lacks the ability to ensure publicly owned resources developed on our public lands that negatively impact our health and climate," he added, "can only be described as a disservice to both Americans and the law."

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