Court Rebukes EPA for Shelving Obama-Era Methane Regulation

Updated on
  • U.S. Appeals court halts regulatory delay at groups’ request
  • Panel majority calls agency action unauthorized, unreasonable

A U.S. appeals court rebuked the Environmental Protection Agency for unilaterally suspending Obama-era methane emissions regulations while the regulator reviewed the rule.

The Washington-based panel’s 2-1 majority on Monday called the EPA’s move both unauthorized and unreasonable. It granted a request from six environmental groups to allow the rule to remain in place.

The decision is the latest blow to the agenda of President Donald Trump, who has been pushing the roll back of regulations put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Courts have also delayed the president’s effort to put in place a travel ban on citizens of six mostly Muslim countries and refugees.

“This ruling declares EPA’s action illegal,” David Doniger, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Air Program, said in an emailed statement. It “slams the brakes on the administration’s brazen efforts to put the interests of corporate polluters ahead of protecting the public and the environment.”

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was “reviewing the opinion and examining our options.”

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took aim at the measure while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, with the urging of oil and gas producer Devon Energy Corp. The Republican EPA administrator built his political career fighting federal regulations that he said usurped states’ power, and joined more than a dozen lawsuits challenging actions taken by the agency he now leads.

2016 Rule

The rule, imposed in May 2016, required oil and gas companies to pare emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas shown to warm the atmosphere 84 times more than carbon dioxide when measured over two decades.

It applied to new and modified facilities, including oil and gas wells, pumps, compressors and other equipment. The measure mandates companies to upgrade equipment at the sites and better capture gas surging out of oil wells. They also have to regularly search out and repair leaks.

"We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us because the administration has demonstrated that they are going to ignore the law and just plow forward,” Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said in a telephone interview Monday after the court issued its decision. “Time and time again Pruitt himself has shown he is willing to accommodate the requests of the oil and gas industry.”

The Washington court said the EPA can still review the regulations.

“Nothing in this opinion in any way limits the EPA’s authority to reconsider the final rule,” U.S. Circuit judges David Tatel and Robert Wilkins said in their joint ruling. Both men were Democratic presidential appointees.

‘Inherent Authority’

Still, the judges bristled at the EPA’s assertion it had “inherent authority” to delay implementation of its rule while it was being reconsidered.

“EPA cites nothing for the proposition that it has such authority, and for good reason: as we have made clear, it is ‘axiomatic’ that ‘administrative agencies may act only pursuant to authority delegated to them by Congress,” Wilkins and Tatel said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a Republican selection, dissented, disputing whether the court had jurisdiction to even consider what she saw as an interim measure.

“Hitting the pause button is the antithesis of ending the matter,” she said. “The court presumes a certain outcome from EPA’s reconsideration, one that a stay alone gives us no basis to presume.”

Oil and gas companies argued the rule was unnecessary because they already have an economic incentive to capture methane, the primary component of natural gas.

Rollback Plans

The ruling doesn’t jeopardize the Trump administration’s broader regulatory rollback plans, which can unfold over years through a formal rulemaking effort, said Kevin Book, managing director of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC. But it does illustrate that federal courts will push back on efforts to short-circuit that process, he said.

Under Trump, the EPA, Department of the Interior and other agencies had sought to administratively to delay some regulations while working on a broader, permanent repeal.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department postponed portions of a rule governing methane leaks from oil and gas sites on public land. The Bureau of Land Management cited a legal challenge against that regulation in delaying core provisions that had not yet gone into effect.

Similar tactics were used to halt rules changing the way oil, gas and coal royalties are calculated and guidelines on how highway money is spent.

The case is Clean Air Council v. Pruitt, 17-1145, U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia (Washington).

— With assistance by Alan Levin

(Updates with NRDC comment in fourth paragraph.)
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