The Trump administration has finished rewriting an Obama administration rule on methane pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands -- but the new version of the Waste Prevention Rule is likely to be just as controversial as the original.
The rewritten rule will eliminate complicated and expensive regulations for the companies that operate on federal land, the Interior Department said, but environmental groups blasted the change as harmful to the environment, noting that methane is a far more powerful contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, the most commonly emitted greenhouse gas.
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Within hours of the administration's announcement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he would challenge the rewritten rule in court. The matter has been tied up in various federal courts since the Obama administration finalized its version in 2016.
The current version of the rule allows oil operations on public lands to release or burn -- known as venting or flaring -- gas from the wells. Venting and flaring is done for a variety of reasons as part of the extraction process. The Obama administration had called for requiring producers to capture rather than waste those gases, and would charge royalties.
Interior Department officials declined to say how the rewritten rule would affect the amount of gas released. Those numbers are included in an assessment that will be made public in the coming days, they said.
Since its inception, the Bureau of Land Management, the oil industry and environmental groups have wrestled over the rule in several courts, which ultimately halted its most contentious aspects from taking effect.
The new version will eliminate "cumbersome and duplicative requirements" that disadvantage smaller drilling operations, which make up an estimated 7 in 10 wells on public lands, said Katharine MacGregor, a deputy assistant secretary of Interior.
The Obama administration rule would present operators of small wells a difficult choice, MacGregor said.
"Do you want to pay and install a lot of new equipment on these wells, or is it more economically viable for them -- and a choice they would have to make -- to shut that production in?" she asked.
Two industry groups that have fought the regulations in court -- the Western Energy Alliance and Independent Petroleum Association of America -- said the Trump administration had fixed the Obama administration's "unrealistic understanding of the real impact to our member companies."
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency had proposed changes to separate Obama-era methane rules. That proposal would allow producers more time between required leak inspections of their wells, and more time to make fixes if issues are discovered.
The Environmental Defense Fund said it would challenge the rewritten Waste Prevention Rule. Combined with the EPA proposal, the BLM rule "would be a weak federal framework" for reducing emissions. Western Values Project, which advocates on federal land issues, said the decision is "made to appease industry at the cost of the taxpayer."
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