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Environmental, Tribal Groups Sue Over BLM’s Stay of NatGas Venting/Flaring Rules

A coalition of environmental and tribal organizations filed a lawsuit Monday over the Trump administration's decision to indefinitely postpone an Obama-era rule governing associated natural gas flaring and venting on public and tribal lands.

The coalition, led by the Sierra Club, filed the lawsuit against the Department of Interior (DOI), Secretary Ryan Zinke, and the DOI's Bureau of Land Management in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The coalition accuses the defendants of running afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Last month, the BLM published a notice in the Federal Registerthat it wants to postpone the compliance dates for its Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation Rule, aka the venting and flaring rule. Court records show BLM delayed the compliance dates for at least one year.

"This rule has already withstood legal challenges and an attempted repeal in Congress, and now Donald Trump and Ryan Zinke want to undermine it with an indefinite delay," said Sierra Club Staff Attorney Elly Benson. "There should be nothing controversial about protecting our public lands and our communities by limiting pollution from oil and gas development. We will fight to ensure that these commonsense protections that reduce waste remain in place."

Coincidently, the attorneys general (AG) for California and New Mexico filed a separate lawsuit in the same court against the BLM over the stay last Monday. As with the latest lawsuit filed by the environmental and tribal groups, the AGs argue that the Trump administration violated the APA.

Under the final rule, to be implemented in stages, oil and gas producers would be required to use currently available technologies and processes to cut gas flaring by half at oil wells on public and tribal lands. Operators would also be required to periodically inspect their facilities for leaks and replace outdated equipment that vents large quantities of gas into the air. Other parts of the rule require operators to limit venting from storage tanks and to use best practices to limit gas losses when removing liquids from wells.

Last March, President Trump signed an executive order that called for, among other things, the DOI to review, rescind or revise the venting and flaring rule. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance (WEA) filed a lawsuit against the rule the previous November. Montana and Wyoming filed a separate lawsuit three days later, and North Dakota and Texas subsequently joined as petitioners. The two lawsuits were combined at the end of that month.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Senate narrowly failedto pass a bill to repeal the rule in May.

According to the plaintiffs, the BLM issued the stay in response to claims by WEA and the American Petroleum Institute (API) that the rule was too costly to the industry. While BLM cited a regulatory impact analysis in justifying the stay, the plaintiffs said the agency previously used the same analysis in support of the rule and to say the costs were justified.

The plaintiffs also said the BLM didn't evaluate whether the rule violates the law, if the oil and gas industry would suffer irreparable harm without the stay, or if a stay is in the public interest. The agency also did not consider any of the rule's potential benefits -- including increased royalties to states and tribes.

After the Senate failed to repeal the rule, API asked DOI to delay its compliance dates by two years. Experts say any proposed rulemaking on the venting and flaring rules is likely to take years.

Other plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, and WildEarth Guardians. The case is Sierra Club et al v. Zinke et al[No. 3:17-cv-3885]. The lawsuit filed by the California and New Mexico AGs is State of California et al v. United States Bureau of Land Management et al[No. 3:17-cv-3804]. Judge Elizabeth Laporte is presiding over both cases.

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