A rule being published in the Federal Register delays the methane regulation until January 2019, saying the previous rule is overly burdensome to industry. Officials said the delay will allow the federal Bureau of Land Management time to review the earlier rule while avoiding tens of millions of dollars in compliance costs to industry that may turn out to be unnecessary.
The action marks at least the third time the Trump administration has moved to delay or set aside the Obama-era rule, which was imposed last year. The rule forces energy companies to capture methane that's burned off or "flared" at drilling sites because it pollutes the environment.
An estimated $330 million a year in methane is wasted through leaks or intentional releases on federal lands, enough to power about 5 million homes a year.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a leading contributor to global warming. It is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide but does not stay in the air as long.
A federal judge threw out an earlier bid to delay the rule.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said Interior had failed to give a "reasoned explanation" for changing the Obama-era rule and had not offered details why an earlier analysis by the Obama administration was faulty.
Laporte's Oct. 4 order reinstated the 2016 rule. It was not clear Thursday whether the court ruling affects the latest action by the Trump administration.
A BLM spokesman declined to comment Thursday, citing pending litigation.
The agency said in a statement that the delay gives officials sufficient time to review the 2016 rule and consider revising or rescinding its requirements. "Existing federal, state and tribal regulations will ensure energy development is done in an environmentally sound, safe and responsible manner," the statement said.
Chase Huntley, energy and climate program director for The Wilderness Society, called the BLM's actions "inexcusable" and a dereliction of duty.
"This is one more way President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are handing management of our public lands over to the special interests they consider their primary constituents," Huntley said. "It demonstrates the lengths to which they'll go to gut land, water and climate protections to help oil and gas companies make a quick buck."
The BLM rule comes as the oil and natural gas industry announced a voluntary partnership to reduce methane emissions at drilling sites nationwide.
The program includes 26 large companies that produce a major portion of U.S. oil and natural gas. The companies said they will find and fix leaks, replace controllers that vent and reduce the natural gas liquids that escape into the atmosphere during drilling operations.
The American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, announced the program on Tuesday. Energy giants Shell, Chevron, BP, Chesapeake Energy, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy are among companies participating in the program, which is set to begin Jan. 1.
Jack Gerard, API's president and CEO, said methane emissions have fallen over the past decade as technology improves. The new partnership "seeks to accelerate emissions reductions and we're headed in the right direction," Gerard said.
Interior's action delaying the methane regulation follows a defeat in Congress, when the Senate unexpectedly turned back a bid to overturn the rule in May. Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting to uphold the rule.
The vote prompted the Trump administration to promise to suspend, revise or rescind the methane rule as part of a wider effort to unravel what it calls burdensome regulations imposed by former President Barack Obama.
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