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Republicans Want to Let Fossil Fuel Companies Waste Taxpayers’ Natural Gas

The GOP is moving to axe rules designed to improve air quality and bring in millions of dollars in royalties.

(Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis; Edited: LW / TO)

With all the gutting of regulations going on in Congress these days, it can be hard to keep track of all the public health and corporate accountability rules that are on the chopping block.

Republicans have already axed regulations protecting streams from coal mining pollution and an anti-corruption rule requiring massive oil companies such as ExxonMobil to disclose how much money they pay to foreign governments. Just days before slashing the anti-corruption rule, an embattled portion of the 2010 Dodd-Frank reforms that President Trump and the GOP are eager to gut, the Senate confirmed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

President Trump’s other cabinet nominees are facing tougher confirmation battles — Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy De Vos as education secretary on Tuesday — so other political giveaways to the fossil fuel industry have been stalled in the Senate.

Among these pro-industry efforts is a proposed repeal of the so-called “methane rule.” The oil and gas industry has a habit of wasting natural gas to avoid the costs of capturing it and, in many cases, paying millions of dollars in royalties to the public. The methane rule caps the amount of gas that drillers can release on public lands, requiring them to invest in technology and infrastructure to prevent large amounts of climate-disrupting methane from spewing directly into the atmosphere.

Between 2009 and 2015, oil and gas companies operating on public and tribal lands wasted enough natural gas to heat 6.2 million households for a year, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that put the methane rule in place under the Obama administration in 2016. BLM estimates that taxpayers lose out on up to $23 million in royalties annually due to wasted gas.

The total value of the gas wasted on public lands since 2013 has exceeded $1.5 billion and continues to climb, according to this digital counter from the Environmental Defense Fund:

The methane rule is designed to limit the amount of natural gas leaked and “flared” from drilling operations. Flaring looks exactly like it sounds — methane-heavy natural gas from deep in the ground is vented and burned off at the surface. Flames erupt from metal pipes lining oil fields, releasing a potent greenhouse gas and other air pollutants directly into the atmosphere.

NASA satellites can observe flaring from outer space, and the environmental watchdog group SkyTruth uses satellite data to track flaring on this interactive map. The map shows flaring over time, and you can use the toggles to adjust the time period and zoom in to find out if flaring is occurring near you.

Why do companies regularly choose to flare natural gas, spewing methane and wasting taxpayer money? Oil tends to be more valuable than natural gas, so drillers will vent and flare gas from oil wells instead of spending extra money to capture and transport it. Flaring often occurs on public lands leased to oil drillers by the BLM and Interior Department, where companies would be expected to pay royalties if the gas wasn’t simply burned off into the atmosphere.

Ryan Alexander, the president of the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, argued in a recent op-ed that Republicans working to repeal the methane rule are overlooking potential “fraud, waste and abuse” at the expense of taxpayers.

“The oil and gas industry argues that companies, not the BLM, should decide when to pay a royalty on gas that is lost during drilling,” Alexander wrote. “This is a ridiculous claim, one a private landowner would balk at. Taxpayers own this resource, and it is insulting and irresponsible that we would defer to the oil and gas industry to tell us when it will pay for it.”

Climate disruption is also a concern. Methane is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and the oil and gas industry is the nation’s largest source of methane and air pollutants that cause smog. BLM estimates the methane rule would have a climate benefit roughly equal to taking up to 950,000 vehicles off the road.

Like several other regulations on the Republican hit list, the GOP is proposing to repeal the methane rule under the Congressional Review Act, a law enacted in the mid-1990s which has been used only a few times up until now. House Republicans have already passed a bill to repeal the rule, and Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

If Trump signs the legislation, BLM will be barred from writing new methane rules without congressional approval, which could keep updated regulations off the books for years.

The oil and gas industry complains that the methane rule would discourage fossil fuel investment on public lands and cause existing wells to shut down due to added costs, although the rule does give the industry time to upgrade equipment.

Along with other GOP members from large, western states, Barrasso argues that the BLM is not supposed to regulate air quality, and the EPA and a few states already have their own rules for methane, making the BLM rule excessive and unnecessary. Barrasso and the GOP are not simply concerned with eliminating “duplicate” regulations, though.

Republican attorneys general from over a dozen oil-producing states, including Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoman nominated by Trump to run the EPA, have challenged the EPA’s methane rules in court. Pruitt and other attorneys general also joined the industry in challenging rules limiting smog from oil and gas production that crosses state lines. Last week, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), who sits on the environmental committee chaired by Barrasso, introduced legislation that would repeal the interstate smog rules under the Congressional Review Act.

With political attacks on environmental regulation ramping up, House Republicans have been especially bold, even introducing legislation that would terminate the EPA all together.

Pruitt’s nomination has caused a firestorm of controversy, with Democrats boycotting Barrasso’s committee last week as it sent Pruitt’s nomination to the Senate floor. Democrats have sworn to keep Pruitt out of the EPA, but without a clear majority in the Senate, they may lose that battle. Meanwhile, a lot of natural gas could be lost, too — along with another Obama-era effort to stymie climate change.

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