The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Obama-era methane safeguards must be enforced until they’re overturned.

Gas Cover.

Image credits Andrew Martin.

This Monday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is obligated to enforce methane emission rules set in place by the Obama administration last year. These measures were inked into law following reports of massive and systemic methane leaks throughout continental and coastal US.

Leaking gas

Methane is a chemically simple gaseous hydrocarbon, found in virtually all fossil-fuel deposits (either as a by-product of their formation or as the main resource therein). It’s also a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, although it does degrade faster than the latter (but breaks down into yet more CO2). Oil and gas companies were playing fast and loose with this gas, leaking a huge quantity into the atmosphere, either accidentally or just to cut costs.

Under President’s Obama administration the Department of the Interior set rules in place in an effort to control and quantify methane emissions. These essentially obligated oil and gas companies to track and capture methane leaking from wells on federal land. Among other things, they set performance standards for new drilling operations and required many oil and gas companies to conduct an initial survey of methane emissions at their wells by June 3, 2017.

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The Trump administration has shown great interest in making these rules (good rules in general) go away. Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt first announced his intention of starting a reconsideration process for these rules back in April but changing legislature set in place is an often lengthy and difficult task.

So Pruitt also announced that the Environmental Pruitt Agency won’t bother with mere technicalities such as “law,” “facts,” or “ethics” and will simply not enforce four items specified in the rules — including regulation of low-production wells and the requirement that a professional engineer certify well vent system designs — in the meantime. This was a reasonable course of action, Pruitt argued, as Obama’s administration didn’t give all stakeholders an opportunity to comment on the rules’ final wording.


A host of environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Integrity Project, Earthworks, the Clean Air Council, and the Sierra Club, naturally challenged this in court. A panel of three judges was appointed to the case, and on Monday they announced their ruling: the rules still stand, so EPA has to enforce them.

“As we have explained, ‘an agency issuing a legislative rule is itself bound by the rule until that rule is amended or revoked’ and ‘may not alter [such a rule] without notice and comment.'”

“The administrative record […] makes clear that industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on all four issues on which EPA granted reconsideration, and indeed, that in several instances the agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule,” the panel wrote.

The judges further pointed out that the EPA can start a reconsideration process for the rules at any time, but until they’re overturned the agency is obligated to stand by and enforce them.

Which I bet was music to the ears of the good men and women still struggling to do good in the EPA in spite of Administrator Pruitt.