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Congress May Allow Wasteful, Dangerous Gas Flaring on Public Lands

Methane flaring and its resulting pollutants | Image: Public Herald, some rights reserved
Methane flaring and its resulting pollutants | Image: Public Herald, some rights reserved

Commentary: When news of the 2015 natural gas leak at the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility spread, Southern Californians suddenly got a crash course on the devastating impacts of methane pollution. That catastrophe generated headlines and prompted calls for stronger oversight and regulations on oil and gas operations.

But few know that a related disaster has been unfolding for years—methane pollution, at an almost unimaginable scale, across the country. And extremists in Congress are trying to kill a commonsense effort to stop the damage.

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Cleaning Up Methane Pollution

Companies drilling for oil or gas often burn off excess gas or release it into the air. And then there are leaks, both little and big, from drilling sites and other equipment.

On public lands alone, in 2013 more than 65 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of methane was wasted this way—enough to meet the heating and cooking needs of 1.5 million homes, according to a report from ICF International.

To clean up oil and gas operations on public lands, the federal government spent years developing a regulation to require wasted gas to be captured and put to use.

The Wasted Methane and Gas Rule was created by the Interior Department because governmental oversight agencies found that taxpayer-owned resources produced from public lands were being wasted by sloppy and outdated drilling practices.

This rule, which went into effect last month after not being updated since 1982, protects public health and increases revenue to the federal treasury and local communities. And it will help create jobs: over the past few years, a growing industry to reduce natural gas leaks has taken off in nearly every state.

But even though all Americans would benefit from from the methane rule, some Republicans in Congress are trying to cancel it, using an obscure law called the Congressional Review Act. Apparently these lawmakers think it’s more important to take marching orders from fossil fuel companies than to protect our health, the environment and taxpayers.

A methane hot spot over the Four Corners area | Image: NASA
A methane hot spot over the Four Corners area | Image: NASA

Methane Rule: Protecting Taxpayers & the Environment

The Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, is responsible for managing the oil and gas found on our public lands for the benefit of all Americans.

In California, more than 200,000 acres of public lands are currently under lease for oil and gas development, and in 2015 there were nearly 7,000 producible and serviceable oil and gas wells on public lands in the state.

When oil companies lease the right to extract these taxpayer-owned resources, it is BLM’s job to ensure that Americans get a fair return and our resources are used for public good.

According to BLM, $444 million of our shared natural resources were vented, flared or leaked in 2014 due to lax rules on oil and gas production on public lands.

Wasted gas is gas that companies don’t pay royalties on. The Western Values Project estimates that taxpayers would lose $800 million over the next 10 years without BLM’s rule. That’s money that will go to the federal treasury and also back to communities, funding all kinds of needed services, like roads, schools and desperately needed infrastructure projects.

While BLM’s methane rule was created to cut waste, it also reduces harmful pollutants in the environment, helping to protect our air and health.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with up to 84 times greater impact than carbon dioxide. Cutting methane must be part of our strategy to address climate change.

And as we saw in Aliso Canyon, chemicals that come out of the ground due to oil and gas drilling can make people sick. Exposure to volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants produced along with methane can cause headaches, nausea and nose bleeds, and are linked to increased health risks in people with asthma and other lung conditions.

In Southern California, we know how daily smog disproportionally impacts low-income communities and people of color. A recent report from the National Hispanic Medical Association, “Latino Communities at Risk,” found that more than 1.8 million Latinos live within a half mile of an oil or gas well across the country. In California that number is more than a half-million.

But no community should face increased health risks to favor industry profits over stopping pollution.

Congressional Review Act: Undermining Public Heath & Democracy

The Congressional Review Act was created by Newt Gingrich and his allies in the mid-1990s as part of their “Contract with America.” It gives Congress the right to review, and undo, regulations created by federal agencies toward the end of a president’s time in office.

Unfortunately, there are several huge problems with using the CRA.

Using the CRA negates the public input that is part of the development of a rule. More than 300,000 comments were received by BLM in favor of the methane rule, and thousands of citizens weighed in at public forums held across the country.

Interested stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, had many opportunities to shape this rule. BLM carefully took this feedback, and comments from everyone, into account when writing the rule.

Rules reviewed under the CRA are not subject to normal legislative norms, such as debate, filibustering or amendments. They can be rushed through both chambers and passed by a simple majority vote, then finalized with a quick signature by the President.

And perhaps worst of all, once the CRA is used to roll back a rule, no “similar” regulation can ever be issued by that agency again. It sets a dangerous precedent and undermines some of the basic foundations of our participatory democracy.

If the CRA is used to roll back the BLM’s methane rule, Congress is letting us know that it doesn’t care about our neighborhoods, our health or our taxpayer dollars.

Editor's note: The House of Representatives voted 221-191 on Friday, February 3 to use the CRA to repeal the methane flaring rule. The measure now goes to the Senate.

Commentaries are the opinions of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KCETLink. Banner: Gas flaring in the North Shafter oil field, Kern County. Photo: Faces of Fracking, some rights reserved.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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