For the past couple weeks, Republicans in Congress have been wielding an obscure but powerful tool known as the Congressional Review Act to expunge recent Obama-era environmental regulations from the books. Stream protections and fossil fuel industry transparency rules have been guillotined. Next in line is a rule requiring oil and gas companies drilling on public lands to capture and reuse wasted methane from their drills—a measure designed to save taxpayers tens of millions. It's been overturned in the House of Representatives, but has yet to go up for a vote in the Senate. And as both houses of Congress are now Republican-majority, it's likely to meet the same fate.
In November of last year, the Bureau of Land Management finalized a rule known as the Methane and Waste Prevention Rule, that directs oil and gas companies to capture flared natural gas and leaked methane emissions from drilling operations on public and tribal lands. Unintentional leaks, and the venting or burning of excess gas from wells, spews as much as $1 million of natural gas into the air every day. Methane makes up about 90 percent of natural gas.
The agency argued that since these companies are drilling on public lands, they must not unnecessarily waste a resource that belongs to the public. $330 million of natural gas is lost annually, which amounts to about $23 million in tax royalty revenue that could be used for schools, healthcare and infrastructure funding. One study showed that the rollback of this rule could deprive American taxpayers $800 million over the next decade.
"This is the American people's gas that they should be getting royalties for, and instead it's being wasted," Josh Mantell, energy expert at the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the nation's public lands, told Motherboard.
"This is the American people's gas that they should be getting royalties for, and instead it's being wasted."
Lost gas is also a major environmental and public health concern. Between 174,000 - 180,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year are churned out of wells on public lands in the form of waste gas—the equivalent of almost 950,000 vehicles putting around the road. Chemicals in wasted natural gas also lower air quality and can exacerbate serious respiratory conditions like asthma. Other components, like benzene, are known carcinogens.
Congressional Republicans pushing for the rule's undoing contend that the perceived benefits in tax royalties are far outweighed by the costs of implementation, and that wells will be forced to shutter as a result.
Referring to the BLM's number of $23 million in tax revenue lost each year, a spokesperson for GOP Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah, a leading proponent of killing the rule, told Motherboard in an email that "They got that benefit, or supposed benefit, by using a natural gas price that hasn't been seen in years."
"If you look at natural gas prices, the actual additional royalties returned would be somewhere between zero and $3.8 million," she said, adding, "likely closer to the former once you factor in the reduction in tax revenue that would come about due to all the shut-in wells caused by this rule."
In 2014, however, Colorado started capturing wasted methane and natural gas on its own, and not only did it drastically reduce emissions and bring in tax royalties, but it in fact increased oil and natural gas production. "Methane is a product we sell, so it's in our business interest as well as in our general interest as environmental stewards to make sure every molecule goes into the sales line," John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. told Bloomberg back then.
A survey of the oil and gas industry in Colorado by the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions found that seven out of ten companies believe that the benefits of the rule outweigh the cost. This support matches that of the public as well—the most recent poll, conducted by Colorado College, found that 81 percent of westerners support cutting gas waste on their public lands.
Much of the opposition to the rule has come from the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry in the United States. "Pretty much their entire philosophy is that oil and gas are good, period. And therefore should not be regulated," Mantell said in a phone call. "It doesn't matter what regulation that is," he continued, "we see it no matter what happens. Whether it's Clean Air Act issues, Clean Water Act issues—even some of the regulations that came out of the Deepwater Horizon accident were trashed by them."
In a letter sent to party leaders in the House of Representatives, the President of API implored them to overturn the rule, citing what it referred to as the rule's "unnecessary requirements" that it claimed would result in the shut-in of a number of currently producing wells, reducing federal revenue and taking away affordable energy from American homes.
"The rule is a step backwards for US energy policy and all Americans who benefit from domestic energy production," he wrote.
Democratic Congressman Rául M Grijalva, of Arizona, told Motherboard that it was clear the motivation behind Congressional Republicans' desire to sack the rule was one of money. "The motivation is primarily to reward their wealthy friends and donors from the oil, gas, and coal industries," he said.
Referring to the stream protection and transparency rules nixed in both houses of Congress last week, he added, "I'm a little surprised that they're being so shameless about this – in one week they voted to dismantle protections for clean air, clean water, taxpayer revenue, and transparency."
The arcane mechanism that republicans have used to devastating effect on these rules, the Congressional Review Act, was created in 1996, but is so powerful, that it has previously only been used once. The CRA allows Congress to void a rule—with a simple majority, and no filibustering or amending—within 60 days of its implementation. But its effects are more lasting than that. Once undone, the agency that implemented the rule is not allowed to propose one like it ever again.
"It's a terrible precedent," said Congressman Grijalva, "and we're going to see it happen all over the place as Republicans act like a bull in a china shop during the hopefully short period they have this power."
Vote in the Senate on rule's future could happen as early as next week.
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