Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, speaks during CERWeek by IHS Markit Thursday, March 9, 2017, in Houston. ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle )
A federal appeals court on Monday dealt a blow to the Trump administration’s bid to cast aside environmental regulations that restrict the energy industry, ruling that the Environmental Protection agency cannot delay an Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions from oil and gas drilling.
The ruling, a split decision by a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, was the first major legal setback for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has moved quickly to unravel tighter regulations adopted under the previous administration, and another sign that undoing the climate change legacy of former President Barack Obama won’t happen easily. Earlier this year, the Senate rejected legislation that would have repealed the methane rule, which aims to reduce the amount the potent greenhouse gas escaping from oil and gas production.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, and it is often flared or released during drilling and sometimes escapes through leaks in pipelines. Along with carbon dioxide, it is considered a major factor in accelerating climate change.
The oil and gas industry lobbied heavily to pare down methane regulations, arguing that requiring them to report leaks and repair, replace or add equipment would drive up expenses at a time when commodity prices are at historic lows. Oil industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and Texas Oil and Gas Association, asked the EPA to revoke the regulations.
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In Texas, oil and gas interests had hoped that Pruitt, a former Oklahoma Attorney General who frequently sued the EPA over rules affecting energy production, would make President Donald Trump’s promises to unshackle the energy industry from regulation reality. With the methane rule seemingly moving ahead, companies will need to resume efforts to reduce a form of pollution that had long been considered part of doing business.
Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, sharply criticized the appeals court ruling, calling the methane regulations “excessive” and “uneconomic” measures that fall disproportionately on the small to mid-size drillers that make up a large share of his group’s 3,000 members. The trade group is party to a lawsuit challenging the methane rules.
The court decision, Longanecker said, ” claims Secretary Pruitt overstepped his authority in trying to delay implementation of the methane rules. This is ironic considering the consistent regulatory overreach oil and natural gas operators endured under the previous administration.”
Monday’s decision does not mean the methane rule cannot be reversed. But EPA must go through a formal, and usually lengthy, rule making process to undo the rule. It also must comply with the regulation in the meantime.
Pruitt announced in April that he would delay by 90 days the June deadline for oil and gas companies to follow the new rule as agency reconsidered it. Last month, Pruitt announced he intended to extend the 90-day stay for two years, and a coalition of six environmental groups went to court to block Pruitt’s decision.
In a 31-page ruling, the court disagreed with Pruitt’s contention that industry groups had not had sufficient opportunity to comment before the 2016 rule was enacted. The judges also said Pruitt lacked the legal authority to delay the rule from taking effect.
The appeals court ruled that the agency’s decision was “unreasonable,” “arbitrary” and “capricious.” The agency, it said, did not have authority under the Clean Air Act to block the rule.
“EPA’s stay, in other words, is essentially an order delaying the rule’s effective date, and this court has held that such orders are tantamount to amending or revoking a rule,” Judges David Tatel and Robert Wilkins wrote. The third member of the three-judge panel, Janice Rogers Brown, dissented. An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was still reviewing the decision and evaluating its options, which could entail taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision was a victory for environmental groups, which had sued to block Pruitt’s attempt to delay the methane rule.
“The ruling recognizes that EPA lacks the authority to simply scrap these critical protections. And it shows the courts are going to enforce the rule of law on health and environment,” David Doniger, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Trump Administration’s war on the environment and our health has hit a brick wall.”
James Osborne and David Hunn contributed. Material from the Associated Press and New York Times News Service was used in this report.