Court hands Trump another defeat in bid to block Obama-era oil and gas methane emissions rule

  • A U.S. District Court judge has blocked the Interior Department from suspending an Obama-era rule meant to prevent planet-warming methane emissions.
  • The judge said the Interior Department's argument for suspending the rule was "untethered to evidence."
  • The rule in question is meant to reduce leaking, venting and flaring of methane from drilling activity on federal land.
Gas oil North Dakota
Getty Images

A U.S. District Court judge has blocked the Interior Department from suspending an Obama-era rule meant to prevent planet-warming methane from escaping during oil and natural gas operations.

The ruling marks the latest setback for the Trump administration as it seeks to roll back regulations aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change. It illustrates the challenge President Donald Trump faces in defending his deregulation agenda against a torrent of lawsuits after swiftly moving last year to wipe out much of his predecessor's environmental legacy.

Last year, the Interior Department announced it would suspend the methane waste rule while it considered weakening or rescinding it. At the time, the agency argued that enforcing a rule that it planned to substantially alter would put undue burden on drillers.

On Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a request for a preliminary injunction to the states of California and New Mexico, which are challenging Interior's suspension. The ruling means the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management will have to enforce the rule.

In his decision Thursday, Judge William Orrick said the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in the case on the merits because the BLM's reasoning was "untethered to evidence."

The plaintiffs "have shown irreparable injury caused by the waste of publicly owned natural gas, increased air pollution and associated health impacts, and exacerbated climate impacts," Orrick said.

He also denied Interior's request to move the case to the District of Wyoming, where a related case is pending.

Efforts by the energy industry and the Trump administration to delay the methane rule have twice been blocked by federal courts in Wyoming and California. Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins joined Democratic lawmakers to block an effort to scrap the rule in May.

The rule in question is meant to reduce leaking, venting and flaring of methane from drilling activity on federal land. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more potent than carbon dioxide, but remains in the atmosphere for less time.

Earlier this month, Interior announced its final plan for the rule, which would rescind all of its key elements.

A separate request for a preliminary injunction brought by several environmental and tribal groups against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the department was combined with California's and New Mexico's request.

"Once again, the Trump administration's attempts to waste our natural resources and pollute our communities has come up short in the courts," Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, said in a statement.

"Zinke's blatant disregard for facts and science has allowed natural resources owned by all Americans to be unnecessarily wasted for months while this rule should have been in effect."

The Interior Department declined to comment on the ruling.

WATCH: EPA moved to reduce methane emissions in 2015