Wyoming Revives Challenge To Obama-Era Methane Regulations

Jul 27, 2020

Natural gas flaring.
Credit IEA

Wyoming will once again challenge an Obama-era rule that aims to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

The Waste Prevention Rule, which sets emissions standards on public and tribal lands and seeks to increase royalty payments to local economies, has been lauded by conservationists and often criticized by energy-reliant states and industry groups.

When the rule was first enacted by the Bureau of Land Management in 2016, Wyoming and three other states hoped to challenge it in federal court. Their case had been on pause for years: it became largely redundant after the Trump administration assumed office and the BLM subsequently rolled back its own rule.

But in light of a recent court order, that case could resume.

On July 15, a California federal judge vacated the BLM's rollback to the Waste Prevention Rule and ordered the Obama-era rule reinstated. "An agency cannot flip-flop regulations on the whims of each new administration," wrote Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers.

In stating that the BLM had "flip-flop[ed]," Judge Gonzalez Rogers pointed to the agency's radically different analyses that accompanied the 2016 rule and the 2018 rollback.

For example, the BLM's 2016 analysis estimated that the Waste Prevention Rule would reduce emissions of methane and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) by a minimum of 175,000 and 250,000 tons respectively.

Methane has a shorter life in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it can be 34 times more potent when trapping heat over a 100-year timescale. Meanwhile, VOCs can be health hazards to those living near oil and gas development.

Yet, Judge Gonzalez Rogers noted, the BLM's subsequent analysis found that the rollback would have "no significant impact" on the environment.

Beyond a brief mention that low-income and minority populations would have benefitted under the 2016 rule, the analysis provided little commentary on the rollback’s impact on public health

Shortly after her decision to reinstate the Obama-era rule, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Texas petitioned a federal court to lift the stay on their case. On Tuesday, that request was granted, meaning the debate between the rule's advocates and detractors will play out once more.

Robin Cooley, an attorney with Earthjustice, will represent environmental groups in the upcoming court proceedings. She said the California decision was a huge win for conservation and for public health.

"The judge in California recognized that the federal government has an obligation to the public and that they have to consider things like climate change and public health," Cooley said.

Randall Luthi, Chief Energy Advisor to Gov. Mark Gordon, called the decision federal overreach.

He said that Wyoming was already well-regulated by state agencies like the DEQ and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "We in Wyoming think it's already taken care of," said Luthi. "It's well done and it seems to be working well."

Luthi also responded to claims that the 2016 rule would increase royalties for local communities. He said that meeting federal standards could come at a large cost to industry. "If you don't produce," said Luthi, "You get zero royalties."

Cooley disagreed that the Obama-era regulations were cost-prohibitive. "The cost of the rule amounts to a fraction of one percent of the profits, for even the smallest operators," she said, pointing to the BLM's original estimation that the rule would decrease profits by an average of 0.15% per company.

The case will proceed in a Wyoming federal court under Judge Scott W. Skavdahl.