Senate poised to repeal a final Obama-era rule as soon as today

The Washington Post

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will bring up legislation reversing one of the last major environmental rules finalized before Barack Obama left office, after a fierce lobbying battle that has left its fate in the hands of a few Senate centrists.

Since President Donald Trump has taken office Republicans have nullified 13 regulations adopted by the previous administration by using the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a 1996 law that allows lawmakers to overturn rules within 60 days of their adoption if the president signs the bill into law.

Before this year Congress had only nullified one rule, a regulation on ergonomics Bill Clinton enacted during his final year in office. In less than four months Republicans have easily wiped away rules covering everything from limits on the dumping of waste from surface mining operations to giving states greater power to offer retirement accounts to private-sector workers.

But the move to strike a rule requiring companies to limit the practice of flaring, or leaking, methane from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal land has given some senators pause.

The rule, issued by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management in November, addresses a potent greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change. The previous administration estimated the rule would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere and would boost federal revenue because firms pay only royalties on the federal resources they capture and contain.

Many Republicans and fossil fuel producers criticized the regulation after it was finalized last year, and a resolution to repeal it passed quickly in the House of Representatives at the end of January. But despite Trump's support for the measure it has been sitting in the Senate for months, and must pass by Thursday to be eligible to be signed into law.

To pass in the Senate, the resolution requires a simple majority of 51 votes, and Republicans hold 52 seats. But a few Republican senators have indicated uncertainty about the bill, and a couple of others have already announced their opposition. GOP Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Lindsey Graham, S.C., have said they will vote against it, and Cory Gardner, Colo., and Dean Heller, Nev., have not disclosed their decisions.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also remained on the fence until Monday, when he announced in a statement that he would vote to overturn the BLM regulation.

"Unfortunately, the previous administration's methane rule was not a balanced approach," Portman said. "As written, it would have hurt our economy and cost jobs in Ohio by forcing small independent operators to close existing wells and slowing responsible energy production on federal lands. There's a better way."

He added that he believes the Interior Department should still work to reduce venting and flaring on public lands. Last week, Portman submitted a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, outlining his concerns and calling for a commitment that the department would continue to work to reduce methane waste if the Obama rule were reversed. On May 4, Zinke responded in a letter affirming that "the Department is committed to reducing methane waste, and under my leadership, we will take important steps to accomplish this goal."

Environmentalists have immediately responded with skepticism and urged Portman to reconsider. In a statement released Tuesday morning, Environmental Defense Action Fund Executive Director Fred Krupp said Zinke's assurances were "unfounded" and argued that the strategies for reducing methane waste outlined in his letter would have little impact on the problem.

But with Portman's vote secured for now, the Republican majority appears to be closing in on the necessary number of votes to pass the resolution, although the final outcome remains uncertain. At least two Democrats - Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia - have not ruled out supporting the resolution. On Tuesday, Heitkamp's aides said she remained undecided.

And a coalition of industry groups have argued they are already taking steps to reduce fugitive methane emissions, because capturing them can yield additional profits.

Even as McConnell announced he would bring the matter up for a vote Wednesday, opponents continued to lobby the senators who had not announced how they would vote. Gwen Lachelt, a commissioner in La Plata County, Colo., had sought unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with Gardner and staked out his office Tuesday afternoon in an effort to catch him as he either entered or exited his Senate suite.

Lachelt, who joined Democratic Sens. Michael F. Bennet, Colo., and Maria Cantwell, Wash., along with a rancher from New Mexico at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, said that the methane plume that hangs over her state and three others will persist in the absence of strong federal regulation.

"My constituents deserve protection," Lachelt said.

Bennet, for his part, said the resolution was "yet another example of Washington putting narrow interests over the public good and putting ideology over facts. We must retain these common-sense rules not only for our environment, but also for taxpayers to receive a fair return on oil and gas resources."

The legislative window for Congressional Review Act resolutions to be considered ends on Thursday, though a handful of conservative analysts believe that agencies' failure to submit a 2-page report on previous rules to Congress could open the door to reconsideration of dozens of much older rules.

Curtis Copeland, a regulatory expert who specialized in American government at the Congressional Research Service, said in an email that regardless of how many rules this Congress ultimately overturns, "The CRA can no longer be described as 'obscure' or 'little known.' It now has to be viewed as a substantive tool of congressional oversight regarding an outgoing President's rules, and it is likely be used again in the future."

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
75°