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Wyoming Judge Ices BLM Natural Gas Venting/Flaring Rule

Just six weeks after a federal judge in California ruled that parts of an Obama-era rule governing associated natural gas flaring and venting on public and tribal lands should take effect, a federal judge in Wyoming on Wednesday reversed course and issued a stay, giving the Trump administration more time to revise or rescind the rule.

In an 11-page ruling in U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, Judge Scott Skavdahl ordered a stay of the phase-in provisions of the Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation Rule, aka the venting and flaring rule, which was promulgated by the Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

"In order to preserve the status quo, and in consideration of judicial economy and prudential ripeness and mootness concerns, the court finds the most appropriate and sensible approach is to exercise its equitable discretion to stay implementation of the [rule's] phase-in provisions and further stay these cases until the BLM finalizes the Revision Rule, so that this court can meaningfully and finally engage in a merits analysis of the issues raised by the parties," Skavdahl wrote.

"The waste, inefficiency and futility associated with a ping-ponging regulatory regime is self-evident and in no party's interest."

Skavdahl's ruling shocked environmental groups, which have announced plans to appeal. The groups, as well as attorneys general (AG) for California and New Mexico, had prevailed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Feb. 22, when Judge William Orrick rejected a proposed rule by the BLM to delay enforcement of parts of the rule until January 2019.

Environmental Defense Fund attorney Peter Zalzal called Skavdahl's ruling "deeply problematic...We are preparing an immediate appeal, because under our nation's laws, the merits, the governing case law, and the public interest matter."

Dan Naatz, senior vice president for government relations and political affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), called the ruling a "positive development."

"Putting the stay back in is important because the [BLM] wasn't ready to implement these rules," Naatz told NGI's Shale Daily on Thursday. "Just as important, there are new rules coming out, probably by the end of the summer. We think the Trump administration's stay on the rules made sense. When the court in San Francisco acted, we really thought that was unnecessary and really put everybody in a bit of a whipsaw situation.

"We're pleased with the ruling...and hopefully we can get on with this and get some [regulatory] certainty for our members, the government, the states and everybody who has an issue as we try to move forward."

Western Energy Alliance (WEA) President Kathleen Sgamma said Skavdahl has "found a practical solution. He agreed with us that it doesn’t make sense to have companies comply with a rule that BLM is substantially changing in just a matter of months.

“Rather than having to waste resources complying with an overreaching rule that the Obama administration used to try to take air regulatory authority away from the Environmental Protection Agency and the states and give to BLM, companies can get on with the business of developing the energy that Americans need,” she said.

IPAA and WEA filed a lawsuit against the rule in Wyoming district court in November 2016. Montana and Wyoming filed a separate lawsuit, and North Dakota and Texas subsequently joined as petitioners. The two lawsuits were combined at the end of November. The lead case is State of Wyoming et al v. DOI et al [No. 2:16-cv-285].

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