The Obama administration took a step Friday toward plugging thousands of small methane leaks from oil and gas operations around the country, saying the escaping gas is contributing to climate change. The Interior Department announced proposed regulations that would require energy companies to reduce methane leaks in order to drill anywhere on land owned by the government or Native American tribes. The proposals would affect more than 100,000 oil wells that supply about 10 percent of the nation’s natural gas. A combination of accidental leaks and deliberate venting or flaring of methane gas from public and Native American lands released about 375 billion cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere between 2009 and 2014, according to government estimates. The leaks waste a valuable resource — the lost methane could have supplied energy for 5.1 million U.S. homes for a year — while also putting more heat-trapping greenhouse gases in to the atmosphere, U.S. officials say. “I think most people would agree that we should be using our nation’s natural gas to power our economy – not wasting it by venting and flaring it into the atmosphere,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in announcing the proposal. “We need to modernize decades-old standards to reflect existing technologies so that we can cut down on harmful methane emissions.” [Leaks contribute to a Delaware-sized methane plume over New Mexico] The proposed regulations — which are opposed by the oil and gas industry — are the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at lowering U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, which scientists say are contributing to a dangerous warming of the planet. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce similar curbs for other oil and gas operations as part of an administration-wide effort to reduce U.S. emissions of methane gas by at least 40 percent by the year 2025, compared to 2012 levels. Methane, the main component in natural gas, is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping the sun’s heat in the lower atmosphere, according to EPA estimates. But methane also dissipates relatively quickly —in a few decades, compared to centuries for carbon dioxide. Scientists say rapidly cutting methane pollution can buy the world’s nations more time to tackle the bigger challenge of reducing carbon emissions. The Interior Department rules, if finalized, would impose new limits on venting and flaring — or burning off — of excess natural gas, a common practice in the oil and gas industry that prevents the buildup of pressure on wellheads. The proposals also sets standards for equipment by used energy companies and requires more frequent inspections to check for leaks, in the first significant update of the Interior Department’s regulations on methane in three decades. Administration officials estimate that the regulations would prevent the loss about at least $115 million worth of methane a year, more than offsetting the equipment costs. “The gas saved would be enough to supply every household in the cities of Dallas and Denver combined, every year,” said Neil Kornze, director of the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees the bulk of government-owned lands in Western states. Industry officials criticized the proposals as burdensome and unnecessary, saying energy companies already are adopting voluntary measures to prevent the loss of valuable methane. “Another duplicative rule at a time when methane emissions are already falling — and on top of an onslaught of other new BLM and EPA regulations — could drive more energy production off federal lands,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for oil and gas companies. “That means less federal revenue, fewer jobs, higher costs for consumers, and less energy security.” But environmentalists and watchdog groups praised the proposal as a boon for taxpayers and the environment. “For too long, oil and gas companies have been allowed to waste billions of cubic feet in natural gas and avoid paying hundreds of millions in royalties,” said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal watchdog group. Josh Mantell, carbon management campaign manager for The Wilderness Society, applauded the proposed rule as a significant step in controlling greenhouse gas emissions. “These guidelines would have the added benefit of reducing pollution that causes disease and emissions that contribute to climate change,” Mantell said. It’s official: 2015 ‘smashed’ 2014’s global temperature record. It wasn’t even close Why clean energy is now expanding even when fossil fuels are cheap Why we’ve been hugely underestimating the overfishing of the oceans For more, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow us on Twitter here.
News Article | March 6, 2016
Last week the BLM kicked off its public comment process for important new rules designed to limit methane waste from oil and gas operations on Federal and Tribal lands. The agency held hearings in Farmington, New Mexico and Oklahoma City seeking input from the public on the proposal.read more
"The Obama administration on Friday proposed a new rule aimed at curbing emissions of planet-warming methane from oil and gas drilling on public land. It would force companies to use equipment to capture leaked gas and raise the costs they pay for extracting fuel on government property. The draft regulation, proposed by the Interior Department, is the latest step by President Obama to use his executive authority to clamp down on the fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change, and to make it more expensive for oil, gas and coal companies to mine and drill on public land. It follows last week’s controversial move by the Interior Department to halt new leases for coal mining on public lands, and to reform the government’s program for leasing federal lands to coal companies with an eye to raising their costs. It also comes as the administration has particularly targeted emissions of methane, a chemical contained in natural gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Obama administration wants to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025." Coral Davenport reports for the New York Times January 22, 2016. "BLM Clamps Down On Methane Waste On Public Lands" (Greenwire)
News Article | September 9, 2016
On September 6, a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles issued a ruling overturning a federal plan to open vast tracts of public land in central California to oil and gas drilling, which includes hydraulic fracturing (fracking). U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had failed to analyze the risks of fracking and other extreme oil and gas extraction techniques when preparing a resource management plan that would have allowed drilling on more than one million acres of land in California’s Central Valley, the southern Sierra Nevada, and in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura counties. “Fracking raises a number of environmental concerns, including risks of groundwater contamination, seismicity, and chemical leaks,” Fitzgerald wrote in the ruling. He also cited potential threats to endangered wildlife and concluded that the BLM’s environmental impact statement (EIS) was “inadequate.” “The Bureau is therefore obligated to prepare a supplemental EIS to analyze the environmental consequences flowing from the use of hydraulic fracturing,” Fitzgerald wrote. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Los Padres ForestWatch, which were quick to applaud Judge Fitzgerald’s decision. “This is a huge victory in the fight to protect our water and wildlife from fracking pollution and dangerous drilling,” Brendan Cummings, CBD’s conservation director, said in a statement. “The Obama administration must get the message and end this reckless rush to auction off our public land to oil companies. As California struggles against drought and climate change, we’ve got to end fracking and leave this dirty oil in the ground.” BLM officials estimated that oil companies would be using hydraulic fracturing on 25 percent of new wells drilled on the public lands in question. The 1,073-page management plan they prepared, however, contained just three mentions of fracking. Furthermore, it lacked any deeper analysis of the threats which the controversial drilling technique poses to the environment and public health as it blasts huge amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals underground to release oil and gas. Another consideration, which did not factor into Judge Fitzgerald’s decision, is just where the oilfield wastewater would be disposed, should these lands be opened to drilling. The CBD found that, between April 2015 and March 2016, 39 percent of new drill permits issued for wastewater disposal wells were for drill sites within five miles of a fault line. Regulators with California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) were the officials behind these permits. DOGGR officials have been embroiled in controversy ever since it was revealed last year that they had improperly permitted oil companies to dump toxic waste into protected underground aquifers via thousands of wastewater injection wells, violating both federal and state laws. DOGGR has said it plans to seek exemptions for as many as 60 of those aquifers. In February, DOGGR filed the first application for exemption with the Environmental Protection Agency; the CBD filed suit last month to stop the exemption process from moving forward. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the BLM had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it failed to consider the risks of fracking when issuing oil leases in Monterey County, California. Since then, the BLM has halted all lease sales in Monterey County as it completes an environmental review of fracking’s risks for that county. A similar outcome is expected following this week’s decision, according to the CBD. “A management plan for BLM land in central California that doesn’t address fracking is like an emergency plan for San Francisco that doesn’t address earthquakes,” Greg Loarie of Earthjustice, which represented the CBD and Los Padres ForestWatch in the suit, said in a statement. “BLM can’t just ignore the most important environmental issue on their plate.” Judge Fitzgerald notes in his decision that the public lands BLM was proposing to open to drilling contain “extraordinary biodiversity” and “numerous groundwater systems that contribute to the annual water supply used by neighboring areas for agricultural and urban purposes.” In fact, of the 130 federally protected animal species classified as threatened or endangered in California, more than one-third can be found in or around the areas under consideration for drilling and fracking, according to the CBD. “This ruling will protect public lands from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the Central Coast from an influx of oil development and fracking,” ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper said in a statement. “These treasured landscapes provide many benefits to our local communities and are too valuable to sacrifice for a few days’ supply of oil.”
News Article | January 6, 2016
The Bundy militia, the handful of anti-government types currently having a sleepover party in a wildlife refuge visitor's center, wants an end to the "tyranny" of the federal government's oversight of public lands. Their plan mainly seems to be shepherding in a new era of unregulated, unchecked natural resource extraction and exploitation. Their main target is the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that has found an unlikely spotlight since rancher Cliven Bundy refused to pay a BLM bill and called it a revolution. In a highly classy and certainly not racist move, they've adopted the #BLM hashtag. The BLM is an interesting target. For the Bundy clan, it happens to make for an especially good foe because it's a relatively unknown agency. Most of its lands are far away from major population centers and consist of deserts and grasslands—not exactly destinations. It's a bit like the US Forest Service but without the forests. The Bundys want us to think that the BLM is, like the National Park Service, tasked with preservation, an arbiter of wilderness (they hate wilderness). They would like us to think that the BLM's mission involves keeping good folk like the Bundys from blindly tearing shit up like true Americans. The truth is closer to the opposite of this. While providing recreation opporitunities and protecting open-space is part of its mission, the BLM is of any federal land agency the most concerned with facilitating exploitation: mining, drilling, grazing. The BLM lands surrounding my old home in southwest Colorado (by Cortez at the Utah border), for example, even have the additional status of being a "national monument"—sort of like a national park but without the same protections—and yet you'd have a hard time throwing a stone without it clanking against a pipeline or piece of machinery. (The target there is mostly carbon dioxide, which is indeed a thing drilled for.) Across the border in Utah, it just gets worse with the open-pit nightmare of the Lisbon Valley Mine. This occurs on BLM land: In California, BLM land hosts 595 different oil leases, responsible for 15,800,000 billions of production annually. About 500,000 barrels a day. The federal government, the landowner (you), gets about 12 percent in royalties from oil and gas sales, a rate that hasn't be updated since 1920. Here's an aerial shot of the Kern River Oil Field. It is certainly liberated. And the Bundys demand more. To see the fundamental disconnect between the militia's campaign and reality, we need to look briefly at the origins of the BLM. There was a time when the agency didn't exist and ranchers had their rangeland utopia. Prior to 1934, some 80 million acres of western lands were just there for the taking. This was the homesteading era, and, indeed, ranchers took and took and took. Care to guess how this went? After decades of steady rangeland deterioration, and increasing violence among cattle ranchers, it became clear that the historical system of, well, no system wasn't sustainable; not "unsustainable" in the environmentalist sense (or not directly), but in the sense of the continuation of ranching as a viable economic activity. In the words of BLM historian Marion Clawson, "a large part of the public lands had already suffered serious, accelerated erosion, largely (but not wholly) as a result of uncontrolled grazing." Soon there would be literally nothing to graze at all. Since cattlemen first began appearing in the West, attracted by the promise of free grazing land, access to that free land was governed mostly by custom. This didn't work out so well, as Wyoming historian Russel L. Tanner writes in "Leasing the Public Range: The Taylor Grazing Act and the BLM.": However, the feds still didn't really want anything to do with the whole mess, and, beginning in 1879, a series of proposals were made to offer up the land to either the states or private buyers for a nickel an acre or less—basically giving it away. But, since the land was then free, or at least unmanaged by a formal entity, these proposals had little appeal and so things continued to deteriorate across the West. A peculiar sort of stalemate emerged as ranchers continued to claim public lands via unauthorized and illegal fencing while resisting reciprocal efforts by the federal government to give all of the same land away for next to nothing. In Wyoming, private lands made up only about 16 percent of the entire state in 1919, despite these efforts. For ranchers, the ideal seemed to be something like private stakes on public land. All rewards and no responsibility. This is exactly what the ranchers won, and it's what they continue to enjoy. In the words of Encyclopedia of the Great Plains editor David J Wishart, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 was enacted to, "stop injury to the public lands; provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; and stabilize the livestock industry dependent on the public range." Part of the initial goal, according to a BLM history, was to increase rangeland productivity. More cows in less space. "The act as amended in 1936 established grazing districts on the vacant, unappropriated and unreserved lands of the public domain: fifty-nine districts encompassing 168 million acres of federal land and 97 million acres otherwise owned," Wishart continues. "The act, as amended in 1939, established grazing advisory boards, primarily composed of livestock owners." The Act created what was then known as the Grazing Service, which administered public lands in parcels and collected fees. These fees initially were meant to cover administrative costs, but, as time went on, and the Grazing Service became the BLM, grazing fees essentially came under the control of the ranching industry. Nowadays the BLM takes in around $12 million annually in revenue while spending some $80 million in a role that amounts to being a public caretaker of resources exploited by private entities (ranchers, miners, drillers). The difference is covered by American taxpayers as the BLM continues to spend more on maintaining rangelands than it takes in as income from those who profit from those lands. The map below is of the rangelands surrounding the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where the Bundys are making their stand, which has so far mostly been ignored by the feds. The areas with green striping are grazing parcels. They belong to ranchers that are not the Bundys. The lease named "big bird" looks to be the closest to the Bundy's occupation. According to BLM records, it belongs to "Golden Rule Farms" of Christmas Valley, Oregon. Alkali, the next lease over, belongs to Charles, Marjorie, and Darwin Dunten. The rangeland to the west is, ironically enough, allocated to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. When the militia says things like "freeing the land," what it really means is less freeing the land from the BLM than it is in freeing the land from other ranchers (the sort that do actual ranching) who own leases on BLM land.