With a Friday vote to repeal a methane rule, the U.S. House puts part of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s environmental legacy on the chopping block.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a repeal of a rule championed by former Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell to reduce the release of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from oil and natural-gas wells on federal lands.
The 221-191 vote is part of a broader push by congressional Republicans to roll back rules released by the Obama administration at the tail-end of the former president’s term.
Under a relatively obscure law — the Congressional Review Act of 1996 — the repeal of these rules can be quickly approved in the Republican-controlled Congress.
The Interior Department’s methane rule was years in the making. It was designed to cut down on venting, flaring and leaks of methane — the principal component of natural gas — from wells drilled on Bureau of Land Management and tribal lands. It was part of the Obama administration’s plan to combat climate change.
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“This rule to prevent waste of our nation’s natural-gas supplies is good government, plain and simple,” said Jewell, the former REI chief executive who left Seattle in 2013 to head up Interior, when the rule was finalized Nov. 15.
If allowed to take effect the rule was expected to capture enough methane each year to supply 740,000 households. The resulting cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions were expected to be equivalent to taking more than 900,000 cars off the road, according to an Interior Department statement.
But the rule has been bitterly opposed by the oil industry, which says much of the wasted gas reflects the lack of a network to collect the methane and bring it to market.
The Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, filed a legal challenge in federal court on the same day the rule became final. The lawsuit alleges the Interior Department lacked the legal authority to regulate the emissions, and that the rule was unnecessary and duplicative of other rules undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency and states.
“This is an eleventh-hour shot by an administration that doesn’t fully understand how its rules impact our business,” Dan Naatz, senior vice president of the Independent Petroleum Producers of America, said in a statement released when the lawsuit was filed.
“The notion that this was some kind of midnight rule is bogus,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Westen Environmental Law Center. “This has been in motion for a long time, and former Secretary Jewell deserves kudos for helping to shepherd it through to completion.”
Schlenker-Goodrich said the venting and flaring can also release other pollutants that pose significant health risks.
The six Washington Democrats in the House, along with Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, voted against the repeal. Three other state Republicans — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Rep. Dan Newhouse, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — voted with the majority that approved the repeal.
The issue now goes to the Senate, where a vote is expected next week. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has been a staunch ally of environmentalists. Earlier this week, she took to the Senate floor to argue against the repeal of a rule to protect streams from coal-mining debris.
Cantwell is “strongly opposed to repealing the methane rule,” and will speak out against it next week, said a spokesman for the senator.