Senate vote leaves Obama methane rule intact

( Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle )

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans were dealt a blow Wednesday in their bid to overturn a controversial Obama-era regulation limiting the amount of methane that can be vented and flared from oil and gas drilling sites on federal lands.

Using the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress the power to strike down recent executive orders, the Senate voted Wednesday morning whether to move ahead on repealing the methane regulation as a critical deadline loomed.

But after some key defections from Republicans ranks, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., Democrats blocked the repeal from moving ahead by a vote of 51-49.

“Waste is just not a sale-able message. It’s so clear from the states have done this right, you can do this in a way that makes money in the long run,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who voted against repeal. “You can produce oil and gas in a responsible way.”

Part of former President Barack Obama’s campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change, the Trump administration had urged Congress to repeal the methane rule. Oil and gas lobbyists have argued the measure forces costly upgrades and monitoring at drilling sites at a time the industry has already addressed the problem of escaping methane, the principal component of natural gas.

“Methane emissions from our sector continue to fall, even as natural gas production nationwide has soared, making this redundant and technically flawed rule a solution in search of a problem,” Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a letter Tuesday to Senate leadership.

The House passed legislation repealing the measure in February, but Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and the rest of the Republican leadership struggled to find enough votes in the Senate.

Public officials across Western states argued Obama’s methane rule generated much needed gas revenues for government coffers, requiring companies that might have otherwise flared gas to build pipelines to bring the gas to market.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimates more than $1.6 billion of gas has been wasted on federal lands since 2013.

“Over the past months, a diverse group of voices has raised their opposition to this action, calling instead for Congress to continue to protect their taxpayer resources, the natural beauty of their land, and public health and safety,” the environmental group said in a statement Tuesday.

Even with the defeat in the Senate, efforts to repeal the methane rule might not be all together over. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is in the process of reviewing his department’s regulations to look for opportunities to grow energy production on federal lands, following an executive order by President Donald Trump in March.

But reviewing and repealing the regulation could take years, far from the quick remedy oil and gas lobbyists hoped for.

“While it is disappointing that the Senate did not act to correct the rule more quickly, we look forward to working with the administration,” Erik Milito, a director at API, said in a statement following Wednesday’s vote.

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