In The West, Local Leaders Ramp Up Criticism of Obama Methane Rule And Activist Groups Ahead Of Key Senate Vote
Local leaders in western states are stepping up their criticism of a last-minute regulation from the Obama administration targeting oil and natural gas development on federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regulation, known as the “venting and flaring” rule, faces a repeal vote in the U.S. Senate as early as next week.
The venting and flaring rule is “best suited for the trash can, not Utah’s public lands,” Grand County Council member Curtis Wells told Western Wire. Western communities are saddled with “an already broken system” for permitting energy projects on federal lands, which “discourages investment in the sector,” Wells said. But things will get worse, he warned, if Congress doesn’t repeal the new BLM rule.
The methane regulation, completed in the final months of the Obama administration, has been controversial across the West. Three states – Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota – have sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to stop the venting and flaring rule. Western lawmakers are also leading an effort to repeal the regulation using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). A repeal measure passed the U.S. House earlier this month and is now before the Senate.
Supporters of the new BLM rule claim it will prevent natural gas from being wasted and result in more royalty revenue. But critics of the rule say just the opposite will occur: The extra red tape will block many wells from being drilled and force others to prematurely shut down due to higher costs, they argue.
“Royalties paid to state and federal governments will decrease, new development on federal lands will stagnate and jobs will be lost if the Venting and Flaring Rule is not repealed,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) wrote last month to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R). Martinez also argued the BLM could minimize venting and flaring more effectively by approving more pipelines to transport natural gas away from well sites to the markets where it can be sold.
But new pipeline projects have been opposed by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other “keep it in the ground” activist groups – the same groups that have called the venting and flaring rule “a positive step” towards ending fossil-fuel production on public lands completely.
The need for faster pipeline approvals was also cited by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) when he endorsed the repeal of the Obama administration’s venting and flaring rule. The BLM should be focused on “speeding the permitting process for pipeline and natural gas gathering line rights-of-way rather than pursuing the costly, unnecessary and unauthorized Methane Rule program,” Herbert wrote in a letter to House Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) earlier this month.
Other officials in the West have questioned the BLM’s ability to actually administer the rule.
“BLM doesn’t have the authority to manage or enforce emissions standards and they don’t have the expertise,” Rex Sacco, public lands director for Carbon County, Utah, told Western Wire. “Any kind of monitoring or management for emissions should be left with the state agencies,” he said.
As Western Wire has previously reported, other stakeholders to support the repeal of the venting and flaring rule include the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the the Greater North Dakota Chamber and the New Mexico Business Coalition. A coalition of local chambers of commerce from the West and parts of the Midwest have also urged for the repeal of the venting and flaring rule, because it will “chase energy developers away, ironically reducing royalty revenues in the process.”
In response, environmental groups have turned to certain close allies in local government to voice support for the rule, but many of these officials have a history of anti-development activism themselves.
“If this methane rule goes away, there goes the impetus to reduce those emissions,” La Plata County Comissioner Gwen Lachelt told E&E News earlier this month. Before running for office in southwest Colorado, Lachelt was a long-time activist with the anti-oil and gas group Earthworks. According to Complete Colorado, a conservative news and opinion site, Lachelt also helped create the “Stop the Frack Attack” coalition, which includes Earthworks, 350.org, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club and other anti-drilling groups.
More recently, Chris Baird, a council member from Grand County, Utah, expressed support for the BLM venting and flaring rule, citing the importance of oil-and-gas revenue to local government and the potential to capture and sell more natural gas. “Any reduction in federal leasing revenue certainly puts a lot of stress on local governments and creates the potential to have to raise property taxes,” Baird told E&E News.
But like Lachelt, Baird has a background in environmental activism, having previously served as executive director of the Canyonlands Watershed Council. Lynn Jackson, former chairman of the Grand County Council and a former BLM geologist, disputed Baird’s claim that imposing the venting and flaring rule will bring more revenue to local government.
“The progressives in the county are saying the BLM rule will capture more gas and that will deliver more revenue,” Jackson told Western Wire. “But that won’t happen. Instead, you’ll get such a restrictive process that less wells will be drilled, leaving less revenue for local governments,” he said.
Jackson also questioned Baird’s concern about the importance of energy-related revenue to local governments.
“I wouldn’t characterize him as pro-oil and gas at all,” Jackson told Western Wire. “He represents a group of people in the county who are not very hydrocarbon friendly. They just don’t seem to understand that if you overregulate something, you kill it.”
Grand County and its largest city, Moab, have been a target of anti-drilling groups in recent years. Activists there have even opposed pipeline projects that would reduce venting and flaring.
In 2014, for example, activists tied to the Sierra Club tried to block construction of a $70 million pipeline system outside Moab. The project would have captured enough natural gas to supply 236,000 homes, according to The Deseret News.
“I don’t think there is a place for industry here,” Marc Thomas, a Sierra Club activist, said at the time. “This is no place for oil…”
Wells, the Grand County Council member, says permitting delays and environmental activism continue to plague the development of pipelines and gathering lines. Federal regulators have been blocking approval of these lines or imposing “unreasonable requirements” to slow their construction, he said.
“BLM is responsible for a significant portion of the current flaring,” Wells said. Pipeline projects that have made it through the approval process continue to be targeted by activist groups, he said. “Even after these gathering pipelines were constructed, local operators were on the receiving end of harassment and finger pointing by environmental extremists.”