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D.C. Circuit Rules That EPA Cannot Delay Enforcement of Methane Rule

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Robert Kelsey

Associate Editor, Environmental Law Reporter

On July 3, 2017, the D.C. Circuit ruled against the Trump Administration in Clean Air Council v. Pruitt, holding that it could not delay an EPA rule limiting methane pollution from oil and gas drilling. The 2016 rule was part of the Obama Administration’s regulatory strategy to reduce emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas roughly 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The Trump Administration has made it its mission to undo what it sees as burdensome regulations. However, the Administration’s deregulation agenda has had trouble getting off the ground as it has faced challenges in the courts and suffered numerous losses. Much like the Cabinet Mountains cases discussed in a prior blog, the Administration’s lack of formality and disregard for the administrative process is forcing it to swim upstream.

A natural gas drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, just west of Wyoming's Wind River Range (Photo: BLM/Wikimedia Commons).

In June 2017, EPA stayed the methane rule days before the compliance date was to take effect, stating that petitions raised at least one objection to the fugitive emissions monitoring requirements that warranted reconsideration under the CAA. Environmental groups sought to have the regulations put back into effect, claiming that EPA unlawfully suspended the regulations since all the issues on which EPA based its reconsideration and stay were addressed during the notice-and-comment period. The D.C. Circuit  agreed. Under CAA §307(d)(7)(B), the stay EPA imposed would be lawful only if reconsideration was mandatory. But here,  the record demonstrated not only that industry groups had ample opportunity to comment on the issues on which EPA granted reconsideration, but also that in several instances the Agency incorporated those comments directly into the final rule. The court therefore vacated the stay.

Looking ahead, the D.C. Circuit warned the Administration that it would be taking a hard look at similar delays and would only allow them to stand if required. Nothing prevents the Trump Administration from reviewing the rule; the court itself acknowledges this fact. But this serves as another reminder that the Administration does not have the power to simply unilaterally undo regulations that have gone through the administrative process.