In 2014, the Bureau of Land Management held its first meeting to discuss updating nearly 30-year-old regulations on the leaking of methane waste from more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public land.
In the ensuing years, the BLM embarked on an extensive analysis. The agency held public hearings across the country, generating more than 330,000 comments from a diverse range of interests.
As a result, a new rule aiming to limit the amount of wasted methane from oil and gas well sites generated bipartisan support in Congress, as well as in communities across the West.
Yet just days after taking office in January, President Donald Trump and his administration announced they would scrap the BLM’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule. Over the past year, a federal court has denied these attempts three times.
Most recently, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said the BLM will seek a one-year delay for the rule that was supposed to take effect January 2018, though its unclear if he intends to rewrite the rule or completely dismantle it.
A public comment on the decision can be made online until Monday. And a number of environmental groups in Durango announced they will hold a protest at noon Monday at Buckley Park to show support for the rule.
“Advocates of the rule are rallying to highlight their support for the common-sense rule and their frustration with the delay and revision process,” Emily Bowie of San Juan Citizens Alliance said in a prepared statement.
“Even though a vast majority of people supported, and still support, efforts to cut methane waste, the current BLM isn’t holding any public comment hearings on the issue and is limiting the online public comment period to a mere 30 days.”
Advocates of the new methane rule argue that the regulations not only protect the environment and improve air quality, they also bring in more revenues to oil and gas companies, and therefore, the American taxpayer.
Should the new rule take effect, anywhere between 175,000 to 180,000 tons of methane would be cut from being released into the environment. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. And where methane leaks occur, other harmful hydrocarbons are usually leaking, too.
In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the new rule is expected to generate money. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated more than $300 million is lost because of methane leaks.
That’s enough to power an estimated 740,000 homes a year.
To accomplish this, the rule, among other stipulations, would require companies to install more up-to-date equipment, conduct routine inspections for leaks and ban intentional methane releases – all measures generally considered best practices.
“The rule makes sense in so many ways in terms of reducing the waste of a natural gas resource,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, a strong advocate of the BLM’s methane rule.
The issue holds added significance in Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners, where a NASA study revealed a few years ago that the region had one of the largest concentrations of methane releases in the U.S., accounting for about 10 percent of all methane emissions from industry sources.
The study led to the area being dubbed the “Four Corners Methane Hot Spot.”
However, the rule has received considerable kickback from the oil and gas industry, which says the regulations would overburden an already strapped industry, likely causing smaller operators to go broke.
Industry representatives also call the BLM’s rule another example of federal overreach.
“We don’t need federal rules to tell us to reduce methane emissions, as it’s the very product we’re working so hard to capture and sell,” Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, said previously.
Sgamma said the natural gas industry has reduced methane emissions by 21 percent since 1990, while at the same time increasing product by 47 percent, all without federal regulation.
However, at critical junctures where the rule was at risk of being revoked, it always survived.
In January, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill the new rule. When the vote went to the Senate in May, senators voted 51-49 to uphold the rule.
It’s possible Lachelt, who also serves as executive director of Western Leaders Network, played an influential role in convincing Arizona Sen. John McCain to change his vote in favor of the rule after a chance encounter in an elevator.
The Trump administration, for its part, has tried and been denied three times by federal judges in attempts to repeal the rule. It’s unclear what the next steps would be if the rule is delayed a year.
“That’s the big question right now,” Lachelt said. “What are his intentions?”