Zinke’s Illegal Suspension of Methane Rules Will Not Stand

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s illegal suspension of rules to cut methane pollution from drilling operations on public lands is the latest example of the Trump administration’s cavalier disregard for vital public health and environmental safeguards.

The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) today proposed to suspend its Methane and Waste Prevention Rule for 12 to 18 months, depending on the requirement, with no justification other than saying it intends to use this time to repeal the rule.

This is lawless behavior. The courts have repeatedly ruled that an agency cannot simply yank rules and regulations out of effect while it considers whether to change them. In the Trump administration’s short lifetime, at least two courts have already rejected lawless stays and suspensions, and Trump’s Justice Department has conceded error in several more cases, rather than risk more adverse court rulings.

There is solid law, going back to the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, that agencies cannot simply yank the safeguard on the books without a solid legal and factual justification. That a new administration wants to change the rules is no basis for shortcuts in the legal process for making those changes. Zinke’s latest move will fare no better than the ones before.

As I’ve explained before, the methane and waste prevention rule that Zinke seeks to halt curbs the leaking, venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands. Methane pollution is a major contributor to climate change, and other pollutants from these operations contribute to mention poor air quality in rural areas now being industrialized by oil and gas development.

The current BLM rule was adopted in November 2016 after a full round of notice and public comment during which the pluses and minuses of the standards were vetted.  The rule enjoys broad public support, particularly in the West, including from elected officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.

This strong public support helped defeat efforts to knock out the standards in Congress earlier this year. A federal court in Wyoming also rejected industry efforts to enjoin the rule. Now the Trump Administration and Secretary Zinke have stepped in.

Zinke first issued a stay of the rule in June without notice and comment. NRDC and our state and environmental partners sued the Secretary, on the basis that he lacked authority to postpone rules that have already gone into effect. The federal court in San Francisco overturned a very similar stay of BLM’s royalty rules in August – a positive sign for us here. The same court is expected to issue its ruling soon on the fate of Zinke’s stay of BLM’s methane rules.

Update: in a rebuke for Secretary Zinke, late today the federal court in San Francisco overturned the BLM’s first stay of the methane rule, and ordered the rule back into full effect.

Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall for his first stay, Zinke has proposed the new delays asserting blanket authority to change a predecessor’s rule with no factual justification. The proposed rule would go even further than the June stay, knocking out requirements that are already in effect, even though many companies have already complied with them.

Nowhere in the proposal preamble does the agency provide a justification or analysis supporting why compliance deadlines should be delayed an additional 12 to 18 months.

And the cited basis for the broad stay? The agency’s “inherent authority to reconsider the 2016 rule.”

Unfortunately for Zinke, courts going back to Ronald Reagan’s era have firmly rejected this “inherent authority” argument – most recently in the D.C. Circuit’s smackdown of U.S. EPA’s unsupported halt of its methane standards under the Clean Air Act.

NRDC and our partners will be making comments – and later arguing in court if necessary – that such poorly veiled attempts to circumvent the rule of law shall not stand.

About the Authors

Meleah Geertsma

Director, Environmental Justice Policy; Environment, Equity & Justice Center

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