Susan Collins votes with Dems to reject repeal of environmental regulation

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate narrowly voted down a resolution on Wednesday to repeal an Obama-era rule regulating methane emissions from drilling on public lands – with three Republicans joining every Democrat to preserve the rule.

The 51 to 49 vote marked the first time since President Donald Trump’s election that Republicans have failed in their attempt to use the Congressional Review Act to overturn Obama-era rules.

Thirteen earlier resolutions, based on the 1996 law that allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 days of their adoption, all succeeded.

The methane emissions rule, issued by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in November, addresses a potent greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change.

The previous administration estimated the rule would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere and would boost federal revenue because firms pay only royalties on the federal resources they capture and contain.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., unexpectedly voted no against a motion to proceed with consideration of the resolution, along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins, Maine, and Lindsey Graham, S.C. Two Democrats who had considered backing the rule’s elimination – Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – voted against the motion as well.

In a floor speech after the vote, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said “the very first victory” lawmakers have had in beating back a Congressional Review Act bill this year came from a combination of Democratic unity and a few Republicans’ willingness to buck their leadership. “Thank you so much for coming forward and seeing the common sense nature of this issue,” Udall said, referring to Collins, Graham and McCain.

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, praised the lawmakers who chose to support the rule. “In recent months, thousands of Americans asked the Senate to stand up for clean air and against the oil lobby, and their efforts were successful today,” he said.

Republicans and industry officials said they would now switch their focus to getting the Interior Department to rewrite the rule.

Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said his group “looks forward to working with the Interior Department on a targeted, meaningful solution that will achieve the common goal of ensuring the American taxpayers receive a fair and equitable return in the form of royalties while developing a workable regulation, instead of this one-size-fits-all approach.”

And Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said in a statement that Interior should withdraw the regulation outright. “If left in place, this regulation will only discourage energy production, job creation, and economic opportunity across the West.”

Before this year, Congress had only nullified one rule, a regulation on ergonomics Bill Clinton enacted during his final year in office. In less than four months Republicans have easily wiped away rules covering everything from limits on the dumping of waste from surface mining operations to giving states greater power to offer retirement accounts to private-sector workers.

But the move to strike a rule requiring companies to limit the practice of flaring, or leaking, methane from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal land had given some Republicans – who control 52 seats in the Senate – pause.

Many Republicans and fossil fuel producers criticized the regulation after it was finalized last year, and a resolution to repeal it passed quickly in the House of Representatives at the end of January. But despite Trump’s support for the measure, it had been sitting in the Senate for months, and had to pass by Thursday to be eligible to be signed into law.

Democrats and their allies, including several environmental and public health groups, ran a months-long campaign in which they convinced Heitkamp and Manchin to not disclose their position publicly while arguing to centrist Republicans that abolishing the rule would cost taxpayers money as well as harm the environment.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also remained on the fence until Monday, when he announced in a statement that he would vote to overturn the BLM regulation. Two other wavering Republicans, Cory Gardner, Colo., and Dean Heller, Nev., ultimately joined Portman in voting to proceed with the bill’s consideration.

“Unfortunately, the previous administration’s methane rule was not a balanced approach,” Portman said. “As written, it would have hurt our economy and cost jobs in Ohio by forcing small independent operators to close existing wells and slowing responsible energy production on federal lands. There’s a better way.”

He added that he believes the Interior Department should still work to reduce venting and flaring on public lands. Last week, Portman submitted a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, outlining his concerns and calling for a commitment that the department would continue to work to reduce methane waste if the Obama rule were reversed. On May 4, Zinke responded in a letter affirming that “the Department is committed to reducing methane waste, and under my leadership, we will take important steps to accomplish this goal.”

Environmentalists immediately responded with skepticism and urged Portman to reconsider. In a statement released Tuesday morning, Environmental Defense Action Fund Executive Director Fred Krupp said Zinke’s assurances were “unfounded” and argued that the strategies for reducing methane waste outlined in his letter would have little impact on the problem.

A coalition of industry groups have argued they are already taking steps to reduce fugitive methane emissions, because capturing them can yield additional profits. The American Petroleum Institute noted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s data, released in March, shows that methane emissions from petroleum production has dropped roughly 8 percent since 2014, largely because of improved gas venting and flaring techniques.

Even as majority leader Mitch McConnell announced he would bring the matter up for a vote Wednesday, opponents continued to lobby the senators who had not announced how they would vote. Gwen Lachelt, a commissioner in La Plata County, Colorado, staked out Gardner’s office Tuesday in an effort to catch him, and met with his chief of staff that afternoon.

Lachelt, who joined Democratic Sens. Michael F. Bennet, Colo., and Maria Cantwell, Wash., along with a rancher from New Mexico at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, said that the methane plume that hangs over her state and three others will persist in the absence of strong federal regulation.

“My constituents deserve protection,” Lachelt said.

Bennet, for his part, said the resolution was “yet another example of Washington putting narrow interests over the public good and putting ideology over facts. We must retain these common-sense rules not only for our environment, but also for taxpayers to receive a fair return on oil and gas resources.”

The legislative window for Congressional Review Act resolutions to be considered ends on Thursday, though a handful of conservative analysts believe that agencies’ failure to submit a 2-page report on previous rules to Congress could open the door to reconsideration of dozens of much older rules.

Curtis Copeland, a regulatory expert who specialized in American government at the Congressional Research Service, said in an email that regardless of how many rules this Congress ultimately overturns, “The CRA can no longer be described as ‘obscure’ or ‘little known.’ It now has to be viewed as a substantive tool of congressional oversight regarding an outgoing President’s rules, and it is likely be used again in the future.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, finishes a television news interview on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. 

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