U.S. Senate saves Obama-era methane rule, but not with Cory Gardner’s help

A fracking rig on Colorado's Front Range. (Kevin J. Beaty)

front range; energy; fracking; oil and gas; kevinjbeaty;

With the support of three Republicans, Senate Democrats beat back an attempt to overturn an Obama-era rule that governs emissions at oil and gas drilling sites.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner was not one of those Republicans.

A lot of attention had been focused on energy-state Republicans in the weeks leading up to the vote. Gardner was asked at every telephone town hall about his intentions with regards to the methane rule, and he said repeatedly he was still studying the issue. As of Wednesday morning, he declined to tip his hand to either The Denver Post or the Associated Press.

The vote was 51-49 in the Republican-led Senate with three GOP lawmakers — Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona — joining forces with the Democrats to block efforts to overturn the rule.

Graham and Collins had publicly opposed the repeal effort, but McCain’s vote surprised many on both sides of the debate.

McCain said in a statement he is concerned that the Interior Department rule may be “onerous,” but said passage of a resolution undoing the rule through the Congressional Review Act would have prevented the federal government from issuing a similar rule in the future.

“I believe that the public interest is best served if the Interior Department issues a new rule to revise and improve the (existing) methane rule” administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, McCain said.

The Obama administration finalized a rule in November that would force energy companies to capture methane that’s burned off or “flared” at drilling sites.

Energy companies frequently “flare” or burn off vast supplies of methane — the primary component of natural gas — at drilling sites because it earns less money than oil. An estimated $330 million a year in natural gas is wasted through leaks or intentional releases — enough to power about 5 million homes a year.

Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental advocacy group, praised the vote but criticized Gardner’s position.

“This is an incredible day for the environment and for citizens across the country who have been telling their members of Congress to vote for clean air,” executive director Pete Maysmith said in a statement. “The vote should have been an easy one for the oil and gas lobby to win, but the power of citizen activism has broken through the political morass.”

“With that said, we are deeply disappointed in Sen. Gardner’s vote. Despite more than 10,000 emails and calls from Coloradans and multiple protests at his offices on this issue, Senator Gardner managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by voting against Colorado’s clean air in what amounted to a futile vote for him,” Maysmith continued.

Maysmith said Conservation Colorado would make sure voters remembered Gardner’s position. Of course, for those who work in oil and gas, it might make them more likely to vote for him.

Meanwhile, the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance pledged to keep fighting the rule in court and working to overturn it administratively from within the Department of Interior.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed the Senate didn’t even have the wherewithal to debate overturning the rule on the floor,” Kathleen Sgamma, president of the group, said in a statement.

“The Senate has voted to deny taxpayers $110 million in revenue every year. Western Energy Alliance, IPAA (Independent Petroleum Association of America) and four states will continue to make the case in court that the rule is a vast overreach of BLM authority. The district court judge expressed grave doubts about BLM’s authority to regulate air quality, and we and the states will continue to press that point.

“We’ll also be working closely with the Department of the Interior on reviewing and rescinding this rule,” she continued.

“BLM has the authority to regulate waste, but that’s not what it did in this rule. It imposed air quality controls that read almost verbatim from EPA rules. BLM has neither the authority nor expertise to regulate air quality, and we know that Secretary Zinke understands that fact. While we were hoping for a clean break through the CRA process, we will just roll up our sleeves and continue to work to overturn this rule.”

So, don’t expect this issue to go away anytime soon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.