Methane rule repeal defeated by Senate

President Trump suffered a defeat in the senate after his efforts to permit the flaring of methane during oil and gas drilling failed. The fossil fuel industry criticised Wednesday’s senate vote, which was led by Trump’s rival John McCain, as John Dyer reports from Boston.

U.S. senators voted against Trump’s proposal to repeal a rule limiting methane emissions. Three Republican senators, including rival John McCain, joined Democrats in the 51-49 vote. (Image Credit: WildEarth Guardians, flickr/Creative Commons)

Among the many pro-business measures President Donald Trump has pledged to fulfil, repealing a law enacted last year to reduce methane emissions concerned environmentalists the most.

But in a surprise development, the U.S. Senate failed to revoke the law on Wednesday when Republicans crossed the aisle and joined Democrats opposed to the move.

“President Trump’s plans to unravel hard-won environmental protections are not a foregone conclusion,” said League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski.

Methane more potent than CO2

The law enacted under ex-President Barack Obama in November compels oil and gas companies to contain rather than burn off methane that is a by-product of drilling.

The rule would curb the 41 billion cubic feet of methane leaking from drill sites around the US. Methane causes 25 time more global warming over the course of 100 years than carbon dioxide.

Environmentalists were delighted.

“Today’s victory against Trump’s plan to hand our public lands to Big Oil is a win for the American people,” said Lukas Ross of Friends of the Earth. “Reducing venting and flaring from oil wells will reduce emissions contributing to climate change and save public resources. Today the Senate proved it will not always rob taxpayers to line Big Oil’s pockets.”

Oil and gas industry disappointed

The rule would also generate $23 million in tax revenues because drillers pay taxes on gas they capture, according to the Government Accountability Office.

But drillers who were critical of the Senate’s move disputed that contention, saying the rule would be an unfair burden on companies that would reduce their competitiveness.

“The rule could impede U.S. energy production while reducing local and federal government revenues,” said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute, a powerful energy trade group in Washington, DC.

McCain crosses the floor

But the political implications of the Senate’s vote were arguably as significant as the environmental ones.

Three Republican senators – John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – unexpectedly joined Democrats in the 51-to-49 vote against repealing the rule.

Graham and Collins had already expressed their opposition to revoking the rule. But McCain was a surprise.

At issue was the Congressional Review Act, a 1996 law that allows Congress to repeal laws within 60 days of their passage. So far, Trump and his fellow Republicans who control Congress have repealed 13 laws signed by Obama in the former president’s last months in office.

But the law also prohibits the government from issuing “similar” rules after Congress uses the law to kill rule.

McCain said he would prefer regulators to alter the law according to lawmakers’ comments on the issue.

Lawsuits could last for years

McCain’s move was interesting. While he was undoubtedly under pressure from environmentalists in his Western state, he and Trump have a decidedly cool relationship. On the campaign trial, Trump questioned whether McCain was a war hero even though McCain was a decorated Navy airman who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“Thank you so much for coming forward and seeing the common-sense nature of this issue,” Senator Tom Udall Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, told McCain and the three other Republican senators.

But many Republican senators lamented the Senate’s failure to repeal the rule.

“It was over-regulation by the Obama administration, and we tried to remove it with the Congressional Review Act,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. “That fell one vote short today.”

Barrasso said he would ask U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to withdraw the rule administratively. But environmentalists could contest that decision in court, leading to lawsuits that could last for years.

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