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California Sues Trump Administration, This Time Over Oil Industry Rules

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Trump administration Tuesday for suspending regulations meant to curb emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, the latest front in the state's battle with Washington over climate-change rules for the oil and natural gas industries.

By Kurtis Alexander and David R. Baker

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Trump administration Tuesday for suspending regulations meant to curb emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, the latest front in the state's battle with Washington over climate-change rules for the oil and natural gas industries.

The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, claims that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management acted irresponsibly this month when it delayed an Obama-era policy capping methane leaks and flaring at oil and gas wells.

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent driver of global warming when it escapes into the atmosphere. The 2016 federal rule called on oil and gas producers on federal and tribal lands, including in Kern County, to upgrade their drilling rigs and procedures to capture the gas and keep it from spewing off.

The Bureau of Land Management's delay of the rule is the Trump administration's latest bid to undo the methane policy. In May, Congress failed to pass a repeal effort backed by the president. In October, the courts struck down a unilateral attempt by the administration to halt the program, an effort Becerra challenged in July.

Federal officials declined to comment on the lawsuit filed Tuesday. But the administration has called the Methane Waste Reduction Rule burdensome amid Trump's push to ease regulations on businesses. The Bureau of Land Management said Dec. 8 it would postpone implementation of the rule to January 2019 while working to amend it.

While the rule formally took effect in January, most of its provisions hadn't kicked in.

Becerra's suit, which he filed along with New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, said the administration's delay was "arbitrary" and not in the nation's best interests. The action, the suit states, not only hastens global warming but contributes to harmful pollution in the Central Valley, where air quality is a significant problem.

By suspending the rule, Becerra said in a statement, the Trump administration "is effectively threatening the health of our families and our environment. The California Department of Justice won't stand by and subscribe to this blatant violation of our laws."

Postponement of the rule also deprives states of royalties they would otherwise gain if leaked methane was captured and put to use. Federal data show 462 billion cubic feet of natural gas needlessly escaped from wells nationwide between 2009 and 2016, enough to provide for about 6.2 million households.

The Bureau of Land Management has long leased public lands to private companies for oil and natural gas extraction. California has 7,900 oil and gas wells on federally managed land, 95 percent of them in Kern County, according to the lawsuit. That's a fraction of the more than 54,400 oil and gas wells active in California, most of which sit on privately owned land.

California air pollution regulators imposed their own regulations to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations in March, part of the state's goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. While these regulations cover oil and gas wells on federal land regardless of what happens in Washington, many provisions won't be enforced until 2019, according to Becerra's office.

Much of the discussion about climate change focuses on carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, but methane plays an important role. Although it breaks down in the atmosphere, it is 84 times more potent at trapping heat over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide.

"While it's there, it has a much higher impact on the atmosphere, so reducing it now can have a big short-term effect," said Timothy O'Connor, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund's oil and gas program.

The group has for years sought to cut methane leaks. Though California's regulations will ultimately apply to wells within the state, O'Connor said, the loss of the federal rule will leave Californians contributing to the emissions problem through their import of natural gas. About 90 percent of the state's supply is brought in from elsewhere.

"The energy we use will be dirtier, and it will open up a discussion on the appropriateness of California's approach," he said.

Since the Obama administration introduced the federal rule, oil industry groups have complained it isn't needed because companies have been reducing methane leaks, venting and flaring on their own. The Western Energy Alliance sued to block the rule in November 2016 and has welcomed the Trump administration's approach of suspending and reworking it.

"It doesn't make sense to make companies comply with a rule that's being substantially rewritten," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the alliance. According to her organization, methane emissions from oil and gas operations have dropped 19 percent since 1990, though natural gas production has soared 51 percent.

"We're not resting on that success story," Sgamma said. "That's all going to continue regardless of what happens with this rule."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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