BLM pauses methane safeguards

By Camilla Feibelman, Chapter director

The bad news is that the Trump Administration continues its attempts to dismantle environmental protections at every turn. The good news is that, with your help, we are slowing their efforts.

On Dec. 8, the Trump Administration’s Bureau of Land Management finalized a one-year delay of a rule that would plug oil and methane leaks from oil and gas operations. The agency said the rule “may be rescinded or significantly revised in the near future.”

This rule applies to oil and gas operations on public lands — meaning industry is wasting a natural resource that belongs to all of us while risking our health, climate and state economy. Despite courts blocking the BLM’s earlier stay, and despite failing to revoke the rule in Congress, the BLM intends to gut it anyway.

The news of the stay came just as one of our partner groups, Environmental Defense Fund, released analysis showing that New Mexico oil and gas operations leaked, vented or flared 570,000 tons of methane each year (much of it extracted from our public lands), enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs of every home in the state. The report estimated between $182 million and $244 million worth of natural gas is wasted each year, causing taxpayers to lose out on as much as $27 million in tax and royalty revenues annually.

Meanwhile, the EPA is also seeking to delay the implementation of its rule that applied to all new oil and gas production on both public and private lands (the BLM rule applies to both existing and new facilities — but only on public land). The agency issued an addendum to its proposed stay in which it slashed the calculation for what is called the “social cost of methane.” The Obama Administration calculated the 2020 social cost at $1,400 per metric ton (compared to $50 for carbon). The Trump Administration has reduced the social cost of methane by a factor of 25, to $55 per metric ton.

The change is another cynical attempt to downplay the damages caused by climate change. The agency originally calculated the social cost of methane and carbon based on their global impacts. Under the Trump Administration, the calculation was changed to measure only the effects in the U.S.

In the meantime, our coalition continues to explore options for keeping industry from wasting gas and putting our health at risk. One option is to follow Colorado’s example and establish state rules. Under Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper’s leadership, environmental and industry groups came together to establish methane-reduction rules that were just strengthened in November. Ideally, whoever becomes New Mexico governor in January 2019 will provide leadership on these issues — in fact, gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her intention to issue a state methane rule if she were elected. Candidate Jeff Apodaca has also talked about solutions for reducing methane.

A last resort is the voluntary efforts of industry. In the Obama Administration, the EPA’s voluntary methane-reduction program had oil and gas producers sign up and now, just days before the BLM stay was finalized, the American Petroleum Association came out with its own voluntary program that doesn’t meet even the minimum standards we’d hope to see. On the other hand, XTO, the parent group of Exxon, has agreed to comply with both the EPA and BLM methane rules in its thousands of acres of holdings in Southeast New Mexico, so while this is a company that has sowed mistrust by covering up its own scientists’ findings on the catastrophic consequences of climate change, this is one step in the right direction.

Recent news reports have highlighted oil and gas companies’ failure to self-report on their holdings for tax purposes in New Mexico, depriving counties of considerable income. It’s more evidence of the risks of allowing industries to self-regulate.

Featured image: Reporters film Earthwork’s Pete Drinkers with an infrared camera at one of the Four Corners sites that a NASA report found to be a ‘super-emitter’ of invisible methane gas.

BLM pauses methane safeguards
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