BLM moves forward with plan to crack down on venting and flaring

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

WASHINGTON — An Obama administration plan to clamp down on oil companies burning or venting natural gas at wells on public land has advanced in the nation’s capital.

The measure, developed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review on Friday.

Although most of the details are under wraps, administration officials have long telegraphed their hope to curb the practice of venting and burning natural gas — most frequently employed at oil wells where the gas is considered a less-lucrative byproduct to crude.

The Obama administration made its intention clear when it unveiled a broad plan for cutting methane emissions last year. The Environmental Protection Agency delivered the first big piece of that methane plan in August with proposed rules to stem methane leaks from wells, processing equipment and storage facilities.

But EPA officials hinted that other agency efforts would be needed to fulfill the White House’s pledge to pare oil and gas sector methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent of 2012 levels by 2025.

Read more: EPA pushes rules slashing methane, hinting oil industry hasn’t gone far enough

During the interagency review, lobbyists for oil companies, industry trade groups and environmental organizations will try to visit OMB officials and argue for and against the rule. In particular, oil industry leaders are expected to argue the measure is not needed and perhaps too expensive to justify.

But environmental groups say the industry needs more encouragement to curb venting and flaring, particularly at oil wells that are not located near a robust network of gas pipelines to ferry the fossil fuel away.

Methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas, is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas believed to be 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year timespan and 25 times more powerful measured over 100 years. It can flow out of oil wells alongside crude, where it is viewed as a less-valuable byproduct, or it can escape from pneumatic controllers and leak from other infrastructure.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters earlier this month that the BLM proposal was needed to thwart gas venting and flaring, in part because it can be economical for oil companies in some cases.

Read more: New rules for methane aim to halt’crazy’ practice

For the BLM, the issue is as much economical as it is environmental. The Bureau of Land Management oversees oil and gas leasing, drilling and production on public lands. When natural gas is vented or flared at the wellhead, the government and taxpayers miss out on collecting royalties tied to the commodity.

Ryan Alexander, with Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the group was encouraged to see BLM addressing the issue.

“The venting and flaring of natural gas is a waste of valuable taxpayer-owned resources and costs taxpayers millions in lost revenue,” Alexander said.

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