A federal appeals court has prevented the Trump administration from delaying rules restricting methane emissions from oil and gas wells, indicating the president’s plan to slash dozens of regulations more broadly won’t necessarily come quickly and easily.
In a recent survey by peer group Business Roundtable, CEOs nominated relaxing regulations as the second-most important part of the administration’s policy agenda, behind tax reform. On the regulatory front, tackling environmental rules has been at the centerpiece of Trump’s attack plan.
Among those on his hit list was an Obama-era rule forcing companies to report and contain leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But on Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled the Environmental Protection Agency couldn’t impose a two-year moratorium on enforcement of the methane regulation.
“This court has held that such orders are tantamount to amending or revoking a rule,” Judges David Tatel and Robert Wilkins wrote.
Their decision is a setback for EPA head Scott Pruitt, who had sided with oil companies by arguing the rule was too costly, especially for wells that didn’t produce much oil and gas.
“America’s independent courts will enforce the rule of law, so we think this is only the first instance of the courts stopping illegal rollbacks of health, environmental and other public safeguards.”
To be sure, the court’s decision doesn’t mean such rules must stay in perpetuity. It simply means the administration must go through the usual channels in Congress to have them squelched, a more complex process that could take years to play out.
And Republican lawmakers already have shown they won’t necessarily reach consensus on environmental rule changes. In May, for example, the Senate rejected efforts to roll back an Obama administration rule limiting methane emissions on federal and tribal land. Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins opposed the move.
The administration also has sought to delay the enforcement of various other rules, including one that forces restaurants to disclose the calorie content of food.
The big one in its cross-hairs is the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which limits emissions from coal-fired power plants. On June 8, the EPA sent a proposal to reconsider the regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget, but it’s not yet clear whether Pruitt will recommend altering the rule, or attempt to have it scrapped altogether.
Environmentalist groups are expecting more proposed rule changes to be scrutinized by the courts.
“America’s independent courts will enforce the rule of law, so we think this is only the first instance of the courts stopping illegal rollbacks of health, environmental and other public safeguards,” David Doniger, director, climate and clean air program, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Chief Executive.
The EPA said it was reviewing the appeals court decision on the methane rule, while industry group American Petroleum Institute said previous standards developed by the industry in 2012 already were reducing emissions. For example, it said an EPA report released in March showed that methane emissions from all petroleum systems had fallen by at least 28% since 1990, and 8% since 2014.
“A stay is needed to allow for regulatory certainty as the EPA continues the formal process to review the rule making,” an API spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We are hopeful that the eventual outcome recognizes the science, allowing for revisions to the flawed rule.”
Other environmentalist groups were upbeat. “The court’s decision is a big win for common sense, public health, climate security and the rule of law,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which was among parties that had brought the case.