By Matthew Daly | The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department said Thursday it is delaying an Obama-era regulation aimed at restricting harmful methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands.
A rule being published in the Federal Register delays the methane regulation until January 2019, saying the previous rule is overly burdensome to industry. Officials said the delay will allow the federal Bureau of Land Management time to review the earlier rule while avoiding tens of millions of dollars in compliance costs to industry that may turn out to be unnecessary.

The action marks at least the third time the Trump administration has moved to delay or set aside the Obama-era rule, which was imposed last year. The rule forces energy companies to capture methane that’s burned off, or “flared,” at drilling sites because it pollutes the environment.

An estimated $330 million a year in methane is wasted through leaks or intentional releases on federal lands, enough to power about 5 million homes a year.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a leading contributor to global warming. It is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide but does not stay in the air as long. It also has contributed to a 2,500-square-mile cloud of the pollutant in the air above the Four Corners region.

A federal judge threw out an earlier bid to delay the rule.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Laporte of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said the Interior Department had failed to give a “reasoned explanation” for changing the Obama-era rule and had not offered details why an earlier analysis by the Obama administration was faulty.

Laporte’s Oct. 4 order reinstated the 2016 rule. It was not clear Thursday whether the court ruling affects the latest action by the Trump administration.

The BLM said in a statement Thursday that the delay gives officials sufficient time to review the 2016 rule and consider revising or rescinding its requirements. “Existing federal, state and tribal regulations will ensure energy development is done in an environmentally sound, safe and responsible manner,” the agency said.

Chase Huntley, energy and climate program director for The Wilderness Society, called the BLM’s actions “inexcusable” and a dereliction of duty.

“This is one more way President [Donald] Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are handing management of our public lands over to the special interests they consider their primary constituents,” Huntley said. “It demonstrates the lengths to which they’ll go to gut land, water and climate protections to help oil and gas companies make a quick buck.”

Thomas Singer, senior policy adviser at the Western Environmental Law Center, agreed the stay was prompted by the oil and gas lobby, saying in an email that, “To justify this suspension, BLM has cooked the books to find that the rule, which it said last year would provide benefits of up to $200 million per year, now magically would result in costs if implemented next year.”

“The Trump administration continues to demonstrate a dangerous disregard for the health and wellbeing of New Mexicans,” said Molly Sanders, director of Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund, in a statement, “and today’s reckless action to allow the oil and gas industry to release methane into the air we breathe unchecked directly impacts our communities.”

The BLM rule comes as the oil and natural gas industry has announced a voluntary partnership to reduce methane emissions at drilling sites nationwide.

The program includes 26 large companies that produce a major portion of U.S. oil and natural gas, including 13 of New Mexico’s top producers. The companies said they will find and fix leaks, replace controllers that vent, and reduce the natural gas liquids that escape into the atmosphere during drilling operations.

“Responsibly producing oil and natural gas is a top priority for all operators in New Mexico, and this partnership underscores our commitment to protecting the environment,” New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn said in a statement.

A spokesman for the association, Robert McEntyre, added that, “As it was written, the rule would have only served to put small New Mexico operators out of business and choke important funding for our state and schools.

“The suspension of this rule is a great step forward for New Mexico’s oil and gas producers,” he said.

The American Petroleum Institute, the top lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, announced the program on Tuesday. Energy giants Shell, Chevron, BP, Chesapeake Energy, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy are among companies participating in the program, which is set to begin Jan. 1.

Jack Gerard, the American Petroleum Institute’s president and CEO, said methane emissions have fallen over the past decade as technology has improved. The new partnership “seeks to accelerate emissions reductions, and we’re headed in the right direction,” Gerard said.

The organization maintains that the industry had put forward a better solution than the federal rules, but environmental groups say that without regulations, many in the industry will fail to hold themselves accountable.

New Mexican reporter Rebecca Moss contributed to this report.