Colorado’s U.S. senators and their New Mexico counterparts are calling on the Bureau of Land Management to follow the lead of the two states by eliminating routine venting and flaring from oil and gas operations on public and tribal lands.
U.S. Sens Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, both D-Colorado, and Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, both D-N.M., submitted the comments in a letter to the agency about its proposed rule aimed at reducing the waste of methane through venting, flaring and leaks.
“Although we support the expressed intent of BLM’s proposed rule to collect royalties from vented and flared gas, the proposal does not go far enough to eliminate waste,” said the senators in the letter to BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.
“Our states understand the urgency of eliminating this waste and its accompanying pollution, and are actively demonstrating that these activities can be prohibited effectively.”
Routing flaring involves regularly burning off excess gas during oil and gas production and processing as a waste product, and venting allows excess gas to escape directly into the atmosphere without burning it, Bennet’s office noted in a news release.
Such practices can occur when the gas isn’t economically attractive enough to be sold, facilities lack infrastructure to capture it or equipment is faulty.
Methane in natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas, especially when vented rather than being flared.
Natural gas also includes volatile organic compound pollutants.
In announcing the proposed BLM rule, the Interior Department said venting and flaring reported by federal and Indian onshore oil and gas lessees between 2010-20 averaged about 44.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year.
That’s enough to serve roughly 675,000 homes, and about four times the average from 1990-2000.
The rule would require oil and gas operators to develop plans showing the capacity of pipeline infrastructure to take gas produced along with oil, with the BLM able to delay action on drilling permits or deny them to avoid excessive gas flaring.
Also, time and volume limits would be imposed on royalty-free flaring, including a monthly volume limit on royalty-free flaring due to pipeline capacity constraints, after which companies would pay royalties on gas even though they’re flaring rather than selling it.
The Biden administration says the rule would generate nearly $40 million a year in additional royalties for the American public and prevent billions of cubic feet of gas from being wasted.
But some conservationists have said the BLM must look beyond primarily a royalty-based approach to discourage methane waste, and impose measures to eliminate unnecessary waste by eliminating routine venting and flaring, a position the four senators also are now espousing.
The BLM proposal also includes leak detection and repair requirements. In 2014, while Hickenlooper was Colorado’s governor, the state adopted the nation’s first regulations to target methane emissions from oil and gas operations, imposing leak detection and repair and other requirements.
In 2020, Colorado adopted regulations that ended almost all venting and flaring in the state. New Mexico adopted similar requirements in 2021.
The BLM under the Obama administration in 2016 finalized a rule to reduce methane waste, but it was never fully implemented due to a legal challenge by industry and some states.
The agency under the Trump administration adopted a rule effectively rescinding the 2016 measure, but a federal court ruled that it failed to meet the BLM’s legal mandate to prevent waste.
A different court then struck down the 2016 rule, finding it exceeded the BLM’s authority and failed to fully assess the impact on marginally producing wells.
Comments submitted to the BLM last month by the American Petroleum Institute, American Exploration & Production Council and some state-level industry groups commended the BLM for its streamlined approach to the proposed rulemaking and for providing flexibility with leak detection and repair efforts, which the groups say allows for continued development of innovative technology to better detect and reduce methane emissions.
But the groups raised concerns about legal and practical aspects of the proposed rule, including duplication of regulatory efforts already being undertaken by other federal agencies, according to a news release from the groups.
Separately, the Western Energy Alliance and Independent Petroleum Association, which had successfully challenged the 2016 rule in court, submitted comments reminding the BLM of that court outcome and urging it to change portions of the proposal that they say overstep its authority granted by Congress.
“BLM can regulate waste of methane, but it does not have the authority to regulate air quality. The Clean Air Act gives that authority to EPA and the states, as affirmed by a federal court in striking down a similar rule from the Obama Administration,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said in a news release.