Senate Rejects Effort to Scrap Obama Methane Rule

Published June 12, 2017

In a setback for the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, the U.S Senate on May 10 narrowly rejected a bill to nullify an Obama-era rule restricting methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations on federal and tribal lands.

Three Republicans—Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC), Susan Collins (ME), and John McCain (AZ)—joined all 48 Democrats in rejecting a resolution of disapproval under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn the methane rule. The House of Representatives had previously adopted the resolution of disapproval.

Enacted in 1996, the CRA had prior to this year been used only once, in 2001. Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has worked with Congress to use the CRA process to overturn 13 regulations issued in the waning days of the Obama administration. By passing a “resolution of disapproval” in both houses of Congress, lawmakers can send a bill nullifying a regulation to the president for his signature. The CRA prohibits regulations similar to those overturned from being issued again.

Rough Road in Senate

In February, the House voted 221 to 191 to scrap the methane rule, but the Senate proved a tougher nut to crack. Collins and Graham had said they would vote “no” on the resolution from the outset. Three other Republicans—Sens. Cory Gardner (CO), Dean Heller (NV), and Rob Portman (OH)—and two Democrats from fossil-fuel-producing states—Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Joe Manchin (WV)—said they were undecided on the resolution in the days leading up to the vote.

When the smoke cleared, Portman, Heller, and Gardner voted for the resolution of disapproval, and Manchin and Heitkamp voted to keep the rule in place.

McCain’s unexpected “no” vote ultimately upheld the methane rule.

“While I am concerned that the [Bureau of Land Management] rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government … from issuing a rule that is ‘similar,’ according to the plain reading of the Congressional Review Act,” McCain said in a statement explaining his vote. “I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the BLM methane rule.”

President Trump had supported congressional efforts do away with the Obama-era BLM’s November 2016 methane rule limiting flaring, venting, and leaks from oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands, agreeing with House Republicans the rule added unnecessary costs to domestic oil and gas extraction on public lands.

Voting Against Her Home State

Bette Grande—a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, and a former member of the North Dakota House of Representatives—says Heitkamp’s vote was against the interests of her home state, North Dakota.

“The BLM’s methane rule is not good for North Dakota, which had been battling it for over a year leading up to the rule’s 11th-hour implementation by the outgoing Obama administration,” Grande said. “The state’s Industrial Commission, on which Heitkamp served when she was attorney general, issued comments to the BLM stating the rule would cost the state $24 million a year in lost revenue from taxes and royalties.

“The rule also harms individual property rights, given North Dakota’s unique history of mineral ownership, by raising costs and placing regulatory burdens in the way of prudent mineral production,” said Grande.

State Rules in Place

Grande says the BLM rule duplicates existing state rules, making it unnecessary.

“North Dakota has rules in place that address venting and flaring, and flaring has already dropped significantly,” Grande said. “The BLM rule will not improve conditions in North Dakota, because the BLM’s one-size-fits-all scheme does not address the unique conditions prevailing in each state.”

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says the Senate’s refusal to rescind the methane rule put government power ahead of the needs and desires of the people.

“The methane rule was one of many efforts by the Obama administration to undermine, in a deliberate fashion, America’s energy potential,” Rucker said. “Its nullification by Congress under the CRA would have helped free us from the bureaucratic shackles that serve the interest of the bureaucracy itself.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.