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Relaxing coal pollution, methane flaring rules: This week in Congress

Megan Geuss
The House voted to roll back rules on methane flaring this week.
Last week was a busy one for people watching the federal government’s rules on energy and the environment. With the opening of a new administration, the Republican-dominated Congress has been quick to kill regulations from the previous administration and enact new ones of its own. Below we take a glance at some of the most noteworthy actions taken by the executive branch and Congress this week.
1. Rolling back the stream protection rule: Congress wasted no time wielding a previously little-used rule called the Congressional Review Act, which allows the legislative branch to repeal rules and regulations passed in recent months. According to the Federation of American Scientists (via Vox), the 115th Congress can now overturn rules submitted on or after June 13, 2016 in an expedited reversal process. The stream protection rule, finalized in late December, is among those rules that found itself on the chopping block. The rule required coal companies that had finished mining in an area to restore the the land to conditions that existed before the mining began, with an emphasis on streams and waterways. Opponents of the rule claimed that the 1997 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which only forbids “material damage to the environment to the extent that it is technologically and economically feasible,” is sufficient to protect the environment around coal mining operations and that the newer stream protection rule unduly burdens mining companies. Both the House and the Senate voted to roll back the stream protection rule this week. Now the resolution to undo it officially awaits the signature of President Trump.
2. The resource-extraction rule: This rule also saw the blunt end of the Congressional Review Act this week. The rule got its start in 2010 as the Cardin-Lugar Amendment, a bipartisan amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act requiring oil, gas, and mining companies to reveal what they paid to foreign governments. Those companies sued over the rule, and a federal judge tossed out the first version of it in 2013. The Obama Administration started the rule-making process again, but the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) only enacted it in June 2016, leaving it vulnerable to the Congressional Review Act today. Extraction companies said the rule put them at a competitive disadvantage, and Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon-Mobile CEO who was sworn in as Secretary of State this week, lobbied hard against the rule in 2010. This leads some to question whether Tillerson’s business connections in foreign countries jeopardizes his ability to work as Secretary of State. However, the resolution to remove this rule was approved by both the House and the Senate this week, so it also awaits Trump’s signature.
3. Methane flaring rules: House Republicans and three Democrats again used the Congressional Review Act to vote to overturn an Interior Department rule that would have required oil and gas companies operating on public and tribal lands to control their methane emissions. The rule was announced in November and targeted flaring—the practice of burning methane emissions at oil wells—as well as venting and leaks from fossil fuel extraction. The rule requires oil and gas companies to capture errant methane instead of burning or venting it. It also standardizes procedures for inspecting operations for methane leaks and for paying royalties on captured natural gas back to the US government.
Opponents say this rule is too costly to the oil and gas companies. Those companies tried challenging the legality of the rule in court over the winter, but a Wyoming-based federal judge ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (a part of the Interior Department) does indeed have the power to set rules on pollution created on public lands. But if the Senate joins the House in voting to overturn the methane flaring rules next week, then oil and gas companies will have their way despite the judge’s ruling.
4. Public lands bills: In late January, US Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to sell off 3.3 million acres of public land in the west. Chaffetz claimed that the land, which can be used for hunting, hiking, and camping, as well as leased out to oil and gas companies, served “no purpose for taxpayers.” But after outcry from both conservation groups and hunting and angling organizations, Chaffetz withdrew the bill, called HR 621. Chaffetz is still pursuing a bill called the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, or HR 622, which would remove BLM and Forest Service law enforcement from public lands, “instead directing local law enforcement agencies such as sheriff’s offices to patrol the lands,” the Casper Star-Tribune writes. The paper adds, “More than 27 million acres of land in Wyoming is managed by the Forest Service or BLM.”
On Monday, Representative Paul A. Gosar (R-AZ) also introduced HJ Res. 46, which would again use the Congressional Review Act to repeal updates to rules that allow the National Park Service to manage private drilling and mining in 40 parks across the country. The rules were enacted a week before the election and govern “split-estate ownership,” where the National Park owns surface resources, but not the underground resources in a park. “If Congress repeals these rules, drilling could occur in national parks with little more than bare-minimum state regulations,” the National Parks Conservation Association wrote. “The Park Service will have essentially no authority over oil and gas development proposed inside national parks. Leaks and spills could go unpunished without NPS authority to enforce safety standards.” The bill has not been voted on and was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources this week.
5. Confirmations advancing: Democrats on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee boycotted a vote on the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA for two days before their Republican counterparts, who have the majority, suspended committee rules to approve Pruitt’s nomination on a roll-call vote, 11-0. Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General who had sued the EPA 14 times in his tenure, claimed in his confirmation hearing that he believed in climate change but was ambiguous about whether the changing climate is human-caused. Decades of climate research rejects this equivocation. A vote on Pruitt’s nomination now goes to the full Senate. The Senate Energy Committee also voted this week to approve the nominations of Rick Perry for Energy Secretary and Ryan Zinke for Secretary of the Interior, although without the drama of a rules suspension. The nominations of those two politicians will also be subject to a full vote from the Senate.
Relaxing coal pollution, methane flaring rules: This week in Congress Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 11:44 PM Rating: 5

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