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Trump Administration Asks Appellate Court to Delay Cases Over Methane Rules

The Trump administration has asked an appellate court to delay a series of lawsuits over proposed rules governing new sources of methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry, in order to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) time to review the rules.

The request for an abeyance last Friday in U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, follows an executive order (EO) issued by the administration on March 28. The EO includes, among other things, a directive to the EPA to immediately review regulations on energy sources, and then to either suspend, revise or rescind them.

At issue are three final rules governing methane emissions that the EPA unveiled in May 2016 by the Obama administration. The rules, collectively updates to the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), are designed to reduce methane, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and toxic air pollutants. The rules were designed to help meet a goal by the previous administration to slash methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45% from 2012 levels by the year 2025.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Wood asked the court to hold the lead case, American Petroleum Institute (API) et al v. EPA et al, No. 13-1108, as well as several consolidated lawsuits, in abeyance until 30 days after the EPA completed the review called for in the EO.

"In light of EPA's pending review of the 2016 NSPS rule, abeyance of these consolidated cases until 30 days after EPA's review of the rule pursuant to the EO is warranted," Wood wrote in Friday's filing. In a sign the abeyance period could be lengthy, Wood said the EPA "would be willing to submit status reports every 60 days during the abeyance period if that would be helpful to the court."

Under the EO, the EPA administrator has 45 days to submit a review plan to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. A draft report on the EPA's actions is due within 120 days of the EO being enacted, and a final report is due within 180 days.

Last January, the court consolidated three groups of lawsuits and made the API case the lead one. The other two were Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) et al v. EPA et al, No. 15-1040, and State of North Dakota v. EPA et al, No. 16-1242. Both of those lawsuits also had additional cases consolidated with them.

Thirteen states -- Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin -- plus the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, are petitioners that oppose the new rules. API, IPAA, the Western Energy Alliance and several state oil and gas, drilling contractor and royalty owner associations are also opposed.

Meanwhile, at least nine states -- California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont -- joined a coalition of environmental groups in support of the rules. The coalition includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, the Clean Air Council, Earthworks and the Environmental Integrity Project.

EPA built NSPS upon VOC emission reduction requirements for new oil and gas wells that the agency first unveiled in April 2012. Those requirements called for a two-phase process to reduce VOCs: requiring flaring followed by "green completions," a term that means deploying equipment to capture and sell natural gas emissions that are otherwise lost.

EPA previously said it expected NSPS to reduce 510,000 short tons of methane in 2025, which is the equivalent of reducing 11 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The rules were also expected to reduce other pollutants, including 210,000 tons of VOCs and 3,900 tons of air toxics, by 2025.

The Trump administration's fortunes in court have been a mixed bag. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to continue hearing a legal challenge to the controversial Clean Water Rule, which the administration, Republicans and several industries oppose.

Last month, attorneys for the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver to abate a case over a BLM rule governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on public and tribal lands because the agency intends to rescind the rule.

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