Taxpayers Lose if Congress Axes the Bureau of Land Management Methane Rule

Taxpayers Lose if Congress Axes the Bureau of Land Management Methane Rule

Energy & Natural Resources  | Quick Takes
May 9, 2017  | By  | 5 min read

I’ve written about the Bureau of Land Management’s proposals to reduce methane waste before. It’s hard to believe solving such an obvious problem is still a topic we need to talk about.

In 2014 alone, $444 million worth of natural gas was vented or flared from federal and tribal lands, almost all of it royalty-free. The royalty value of the gas currently being vented or flared is roughly $50 million a year, an amount that will likely increase as production continues to grow and natural gas prices increase from their historic lows. Without an update to existing rules, taxpayers will never get a fair return for the natural gas we all own.

Last fall, the Bureau of Land Management finished a 5-year process and issued a rule to address the problem of lost royalties and methane waste. Now President Donald Trump’s administration can take that rule and make it their own – they can fully repeal it, amend it, really do anything they want. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to limit BLM’s options to tackle the problem.

But for once, Congress should do nothing. And doing nothing would keep these millions of taxpayer dollars from going up in smoke.

The deadline for passing a Congressional Review Act resolution to repeal the Bureau of Land Management Methane Rule is this week. If the Senate goes this route to repeal the rule, it accomplishes two things and two things only: The Bureau of Land Management will not be able to update the decades-old rules that have allowed the loss of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas, and the Republican leadership will declare that they have defeated one more Obama-era action.

Advice to congressional leadership: Don’t be sore winners. Winning the election and having majorities in both chambers of Congress and the presidency should be victory enough, and taking tools off the table for an administration run by your own party is bad politics. Capitol Hill lawmakers should let the Trump administration and his new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke address the issue.

While lawmakers may have some concerns with the rule, using the blunt ax of the Congressional Review Act will lock taxpayers into the 30-year-old rules of the past. Because the repeal in this way prevents any subsequent rule that is “substantially the same,” congressional repeal will prevent the Bureau of Land Management from doing anything in the future about wasted gas and lost revenues. Just this week, Zinke released a letter listing some of the ways he would address methane waste in the event the rule is repealed using the Congressional Review Act. But any of those provisions that are substantially similar would be prohibited by law, making all efforts to reduce waste more difficult.

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Meanwhile, taxpayers lose. Leaked, vented or flared gas represents a significant loss of royalty revenue. It is also a huge waste of a valuable resource. And the problem is getting worse. The amount of gas flared from federal and tribal lands doubled from 2009 to 2013.

There is no question wasted methane is a problem. The amount of wasted gas is increasing because the original methane waste rules were crafted in 1979, long before modern drilling techniques like “fracking” even existed. The Government Accountability Office and the Inspector General at Interior have criticized BLM’s management of wasted gas under the old system.

By executive order, Trump has already directed Zinke to review the rule. Congress should let the new administration do its job.

Using the Congressional Review Act on the methane rule is the wrong thing to do for taxpayers – regardless of what last-minute sweeteners get added or promises are made to win votes. The government has a chance to get more natural gas to the market and increase revenue for federal and state governments. Making that job harder is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Originally published on October 27, 2017 in U.S. News & World Report