The Trump administration’s effort to repeal environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration has been rolling along at record pace. Until, that is, this week.
In a surprise decision on Wednesday, the Senate narrowly voted not to roll back the “methane rule,” a measure that was designed to curb the amount of methane production companies can emit while working on federal lands.
Three GOP Senators John McCain (Arizona), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lindsey O. Graham (South Carolina) helped to change the balance of that Wednesday vote. Democratic senators who had previously said they would support the repeal (Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III, West Virginia,) also voted against the rollback.
But the vote (51 against repealing the measure; 49 for) isn’t sitting well with President Trump, who was expecting the repeal to pass handily. The administration announced Wednesday evening that the Interior Department is now reviewing the methane rule and will be expected to “suspend, revise or rescind the rule” because of its “significant regulatory burden [on] American energy production, economic growth and job creation.”
The rule, which requires oil and gas companies to capture the methane they would otherwise “flare” or release into the atmosphere on public lands, was implemented in the last month of the Obama presidency. Proponents say the rule both helps limit the waste of valuable natural resources and reduces the amount of greenhouse gases being discharged into the atmosphere.
But critics charge that it puts unreasonable burden on “small independent oil and gas producers” that can’t always afford to change out older equipment for more up-to-date models.
Some producers also argue that it is a redundant rule that is designed to force what is already common-place practices for companies working close to the belt, who lose revenue if they are continually burning off methane gas.
Both oil and natural gas production on federal lands have been declining in the past decade, fueled in part by a growing concern about their impacts on the climate. Trump has vowed to reverse that trend, despite polls that show that voters overwhelmingly support investing in renewable energy over oil and gas production.
It isn’t clear at the moment what changes will be made to the rule by the Interior Department. Secretary Ryan Zinke has said that he questions need for flaring and venting gases that could otherwise be put to use.
“It’s the taxpayers’ oil and gas resource,” Zinke told Bloomberg in an interview. “To waste it, for future generations, I’ve never been very comfortable with that.”
But in a statement released on Wednesday, the Interior Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary Kate MacGregor said that the department was concerned that the methane rule could “have real and harmful impacts on onshore energy development and could impact state and local jobs and revenue. She added that the senate vote “doesn’t impact the Administration’s commitment to spurring investment in responsible energy development and ensuring smart regulatory protections.”
For proponents of Obama-era environmental protections, Wednesday’s unusual vote comes with a clear win: A small but growing cadre of Republicans and conservative Democrats are now speaking up against arbitrarily repealing environmental protections.
And some are also counseling caution when it comes to using the Congressional Review Act to repeal measures of former administrations. According to Graham, who voted against the repeal, the CRA was “too blunt an instrument” to use because it prevents future administrations from simply recreating a new rule to replace the one repealed. It also can snarl departments’ ability to implement new rules affecting their management and oversight and blocks interference from the courts.
Does this mean that Senate and House members will be rethinking Trump’s plan to wipe as many Obama-era environmental protections off the book as possible? It’s probably too early to tell. But with the public’s declining confidence that his actions will protect the environment and an outspoken reservation about expanding the coal industry, some Congressional members may be rethinking their roles in repealing environmental measures like the methane rule that voters clearly wanted passed.
Image: Flickr/Bureau of Land Management