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Federal appeals court blocks effort to suspend methane rule with input from Colorado

Author: Peter Marcus - July 4, 2017 - Updated: July 4, 2017

Opponents and backers of an Obama administration rule to rein in flaring on public lands are using competing opinion polls as the U.S. Senate is expected to consider a measure to rescind the rule. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is still considering his stance on the issue while Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is opposed to the move. (Photo Courtesy NOAA.gov)
(Photo Courtesy NOAA.gov)

A federal appeals court blocked a Trump administration effort to suspend an Obama-era methane regulation with input from Colorado.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has long been dedicated to the subject of methane, dating back to 2014 when the state passed the first methane regulations in the nation. Producers are required to use infrared cameras to detect leaks in production equipment, conduct instrument-based monthly inspections on large sources of emissions and implement expedited timelines for repairing leaks.

In 2015, the Obama administration proposed the first-ever national methane regulations aimed at significantly cutting the greenhouse gas, after Colorado paved the way. The rule was implemented last year.

The proposal called for a reduction in methane emissions from the oil-and-gas industry by as much as 45 percent from 2012 levels in the next 10 years. In addition to cutting greenhouse gases, it also would reduce volatile organic compounds, referred to as VOCs.

The 2-1 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Monday serves as a blow to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration, which is trying to unravel a series of Obama-era environmental regulations.

Pruitt said last month that the agency would suspend the national leak detection and repair standards for 90 days. He later extended the moratorium for two years on enforcement of parts of the EPA methane rule.

But the appeals court said the EPA’s decision was “unreasonable,” “arbitrary” and “capricious,” ruling that the agency does not have the authority under the Clean Air Act to suspend enforcement. The appellate court said the EPA would have to launch a new rule-making process to rollback the Obama administration’s regulations.

Days earlier, on Friday, Hickenlooper announced Colorado would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in seeking implementation of the EPA methane rule. The state asked the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for permission to join the lawsuit. Six environmental groups initiated the complaint.

The Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups behind the lawsuit, called Pruitt’s suspension of the Obama-era rule “a move that puts the health and safety of Americans across the country at risk.”

“Suspending the standards threatens the health and welfare of Americans who live in close proximity to oil and gas development by allowing thousands of tons of these harmful air pollutants to be emitted into the atmosphere,” read a statement from EDF.

Methane strongly absorbs infrared radiation, much more so than carbon dioxide, which adds to climate change.

The Four Corners – including southwest Colorado – has been identified as having the highest concentration of methane in the nation. Researchers have been investigating the cause, which could be a mix of energy development and natural occurrences.

Hickenlooper’s lawsuit is being filed without assistance from Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Coffman has been at odds with Hickenlooper over environmental issues.

In 2015, Coffman found herself in a battle with Hickenlooper when she entered the state into a lawsuit that aimed at blocking implementation of federal carbon-pollution standards. The Trump administration has also sought to rollback those Obama-era mandates.

Coffman has maintained that as an elected attorney general for the state, she has independent authority over legal action. In the methane case, Coffman’s office believes a review of the EPA rule would not impose on Colorado’s regulatory scheme, and that the courts will ultimately allow for the suspension to move forward.

The oil and gas industry says the methane rule is duplicative, costly, and will undermine America’s competitiveness. The industry already has significantly reduced methane through innovation, voluntary efforts, and existing regulations, oil and gas producers argue.

But the governor’s office has long-term concerns.

“Colorado has a vested interest in the federal government regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry across all 50 states,” read a statement from Hickenlooper’s office.

“Colorado led the way in 2014 by becoming the first state in the country to regulate methane leaks. These regulations were developed in concert with the oil and gas industry. As a result, this type of regulation is a win-win: it improves the environment and helps reduce leakage and lost revenue in the production and transportation of oil and gas. The EPA used Colorado’s regulations as a template for the federal approach to this issue. Without these rules, Colorado’s methane levels will increase due to pollution from neighboring states, which is why federal regulation is so important.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.