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US Senate fails to advance methane rule repeal

10 May 2017 16:29 (+01:00 GMT)
US Senate fails to advance methane rule repeal

Washington, 10 May (Argus) — The Republican-led US Senate today voted against repealing flaring restrictions adopted under former president Barack Obama, dealing a setback to oil and gas companies that have been lobbying to scrap the regulations.

The surprise defeat of the measure came as senator John McCain (R-Arizona) unexpectedly voted no in a procedural vote. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) also voted no, resulting in a 49-51 vote against holding a vote later today to disapprove the regulations under the Congressional Review Act. Democrats were united in voting against repealing the flaring regulations.

Senate leadership rarely holds votes on legislation that lack sufficient votes to pass because it would waste valuable time on the floor. US vice president Mike Pence could have cast a potential tie-breaking vote today, in the event of a 50-50 split, but McCain's unexpected vote blocked the measure. The deadline for using the Congressional Review Act to target Obama administration regulations expires tomorrow.

The Congressional Review Act sets up fast-track procedures for the US Congress to disapprove recent federal regulations by a simple majority vote. But critics worried using the law against the flaring rules would block the government from reducing the waste of publicly-owned gas, as the law bars rules that are "substantially the same form" of rules that are repealed.

The US Interior Department finalized the regulations last year, which would require oil and gas producers to reduce flaring of natural gas on federal land. The regulations also require operators on federal land to all but eliminate venting of natural gas into the atmosphere and create leak detection programs, steps that would also reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas methane.

Oil and gas companies say the regulations are unneeded and a back-door attempt by the prior administration to regulate air quality, something that is already overseen by the US Environmental Protection Agency. They have sued to block the regulations but had expected for a quick disapproval of the rules through action in the Congress.

The industry trade group the American Petroleum Institute, which is suing to block the regulation, said it was disappointed the measure failed. Environmentalists, meanwhile, were jubilant. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said it was a defeat for "corporate polluters and their allies in the White House."

President Donald Trump's administration can still seek to rewrite or rescind the regulations, even without action from Congress, but doing so will require a full rulemaking process that could take more than a year to complete and would have to survive judicial review. US interior secretary Ryan Zinke last week, in a letter, said he was committed to cutting waste of natural gas on public land.