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US Administration to repeal most Obama-era methane leak regulations

13 February 2018

The US Interior Department said on February 12 it would replace regulations aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands introduced in 2016 by the Obama administration. New rules will replace the 2016 regulations with requirements similar to those in force before the changes of two years ago.

The Department had previously announced it was delaying the introduction of the Obama-era rule until January 2019, arguing that it was overly burdensome to industry. Officials said then that the delay would give the federal Bureau of Land Management time to review the earlier rule while avoiding tens of millions of dollars in compliance costs to industry.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is frequently leaked into the atmosphere accidentally or intentionally during drilling operations. An estimated $330 million a year in methane is estimated to be wasted on federal lands, enough to power about 5 million homes a year.

The Obama regulations would have forced energy companies to capture methane flared at drilling sites because it pollutes the environment. Many companies consider the rule unnecessary and overly intrusive, but environmental groups warn that methane emissions from oil and gas operations are the second-largest industrial contributor to climate change in the United States. Methane is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide but does not stay in the air as long.

Methane pollution also poses a risk to public health, especially to those who suffer from asthma or other breathing difficulties.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop hailed the latest proposal on how to handle methane emissions on federal lands.

"The previous administration scorned domestic energy development and crafted the prior rule to deliberately stifle" energy production, said Bishop, R-Utah. The new rule will "promote investment in federal and tribal lands so that economies in the West can grow," he said.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said the Obama-era rule required oil and gas companies to "take common-sense and cost-effective measures to reduce preventable leaks and venting of methane" at drilling sites.

The new proposal by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke "would only serve to reward the least responsible actors in industry at a time when other companies are moving forward to tackle methane waste," Krupp said, citing a voluntary program by large energy companies to reduce methane emissions at drilling sites nationwide.

A program backed by the American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, is intended to encourage drillers to find and fix leaks and take other steps to reduce the escape of natural gas into the atmosphere during drilling operations.

“We are supportive of smart regulation that is effectively tailored to BLM’s authority to prevent waste and conserve resources, an objective that our industry shares,” said Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute.

Also on February 12, the Trump Administration said its new infrastructure plan would speed up the construction of pipelines and cut environmental reviews.

The $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal would give the interior secretary the authority to approve natural gas pipelines that cross the country’s national parks, changing the requirement that Congress authorise such projects.

The Trump administration is seeking to tackle what it calls a duplicative environmental review process for major infrastructure projects by trying to amend bedrock environmental laws like the decades-old National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

The administration said it wanted environmental reviews for major projects to take no longer than 21 months – instead of years - and direct one federal agency rather than several different agencies to conduct the review.

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