News Roundup: Biden's back?

While Congress dallies on infrastructure and social plans, Biden implements methane rules and more

During President Biden’s first days in office, he issued a flurry of orders on climate change and public lands deemed by the Land Desk as “bold.” Several months later, as those early promises failed to materialize, we asked: Where’s Interior?

Now it appears as if Interior and the rest of the administration have come back from wherever they may have been and—even as big legislation languishes in Congress— again making some relatively bold moves.

First, the Environmental Protection Agency proposes new rules limiting methane emissions from existing oil and gas facilities and strengthening in-place rules on newly constructed facilities.

The EPA rules that Obama implemented and were eviscerated by the Trump administration before being reinstated by Congress only applied to new wells, meaning hundreds of thousands of existing wells—many of them old and leaky—were left out. This remedies that problem. The new rule, which will avoid 41 million tons of methane emissions, according to EPA calculations, will include, among other provisions:

  • a comprehensive monitoring and leak-detection program for new and existing facilities;

  • a zero-emissions standard for new and existing pneumatic controllers (which are a huge source of methane emissions);

  • restrictions on methane venting and requirements to capture and sell it when possible.

Not included, however, are any limits on flaring methane. Plus, there are exemptions for low-producing or stripper wells. So while environmentalists are praising the proposal, they do see room for improvement:

At least some regulations on flaring may be coming soon. Along with the proposed rule, the administration released a more comprehensive methane emissions reduction plan, which says the Bureau of Land Management is planning to require oil and gas operators to pay royalties on vented or flared gas. It goes on to say:

BLM estimates that in 2019, approximately 150 billion cubic feet of methane were flared from operations that would be subject to the BLM regulation—more than the entire yearly natural gas consumption of residential consumers in the state of Wisconsin. Also, recent research indicates that the level of un-combusted methane in flares is higher than expected, meaning that flaring operations involve some direct venting of methane into the atmosphere.

We’ll dive into this tome, which is not limited to oil and gas operations, and bring you more analysis in a future dispatch. In the meantime, to get a better idea of why methane matters, we strongly suggest checking out this High Country News infographic compiled by yours truly with stellar illustrations by Abbey Andersen and design by Luna Anna Archey.

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A lot of conservation-minded folks were ready to give up on the Biden administration altogether earlier this year when it ended the oil and gas leasing pause (to be fair, a judge ruled the moratorium illegal) and announced a resumption of lease sales. Making it worse, the BLM was handing out drilling permits on existing leases at rates not seen since the George W. Bush drill-baby-drill years. Meanwhile, there is still no news on the oil and gas leasing program review and expected reform.

Still, it appears as if reform is happening—only quietly and incrementally, e.g.:

  • Last week the BLM let slip that it would begin factoring greenhouse gas emission and climate considerations into its reviews of pending fossil fuel lease sales on public lands. It’s not clear how this will play out—an AP story suggests the BLM lacks the power to stop leasing due to climate concerns—but it’s something. And…

  • The BLM announced that it would offer 195 parcels for oil and gas leasing on 179,000 acres in Wyoming at its first quarter 2022 sale. That’s a lot, sure, but it’s also a lot less than the 459 parcels that were nominated for sale. The BLM decided to defer 260 parcels due to potential impacts to sage grouse habitat. It’s not unusual for the agency to set aside a parcel or two, but deferring leasing on hundreds of nominated parcels is extraordinary. That said, the agency plans to continue to evaluate the situation and may still offer the parcels at a later date.

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And, finally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service backed off on its plan to revoke Endangered Species Act protections for the Canada Lynx.

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IN OTHER NEWS:

  • Federal water managers cancel plans to release big water from Glen Canyon Dam to spread out sediment and rebuild downstream beaches. Doing so would further lower lake levels, depleting hydropower generation capacity even more.

  • Ute Mountain Ute tribal members are resisting a plan by Energy Fuels to import radioactive waste from Estonia and reprocess it in the White Mesa uranium mill in San Juan County, Utah. Jessica Douglas has an excellent cover story about it in this month’s High Country News.

  • Anastasia Hufham takes on the housing crisis in the West for the Yale Politic, complete with quotes from yours truly!

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AND AN ADDENDUM TO the three-part Our River of Sorrows piece: Some folks have asked me what happened with the manhunt and the fugitives. I didn’t get into that because it’s sort of a long story, but in summary: A few days into the manhunt, Bobby Mason, one of the fugitives from Durango, was spotted near Bluff, Utah. Law enforcement agents found him nearby, dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. The other two fugitives remained at large for weeks, months, then years. Monte Pilon’s body was found in 1999 near where the trio had abandoned the flatbed truck they had been driving. Jason McVean’s body was found in 2007 nearby.

The Land Desk
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