In a surprise win for environmentalists, the U.S. Senate voted 51-49 on Wednesday against repealing an Obama administration rule limiting methane pollution on federal lands.
Under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), lawmakers can overturn the rules of a previous administration within about 60 days of their enactment. The CRA was used little before the Trump Administration. But so far this year, Congress has voted 13 times to overturn various Obama rules, including those related to stream protection, internet privacy, and shooting hibernating bears.
Wednesday’s vote, however, rejected the repeal of an Obama-era rule requiring gas drillers to limit leaks, venting, and burning methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from wells drilled on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management estimated that drillers now waste enough methane gas to supply 6.2 million homes a year, and cost taxpayers $46 to $204 million a year in lost royalties.
But preventing waste was not why the rule survived. The deciding “No” vote on its repeal, from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, came because of a provision of the Act that would have prevented the government from drawing up any future rules restricting methane emissions. McCain joined fellow Republicans Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in opposing the repeal.
“Passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar’,” McCain said in a statement. “I join the call for strong action to reduce pollution from venting, flaring and leaks associated with oil and gas production operations on public and Indian land.”
Environmentalists were in equal parts pleased and surprised by the vote, and praised McCain.
“The oil and gas industry gets into power and the first thing they ask for is a repeal of pollution rules, it just doesn’t make people happy,” Mark Brownstein of the Environmental Defense Fund told BuzzFeed News. “Senator McCain once again demonstrated that he is a voice of common sense and reason.”
Environmentalists celebrated the rare win in the Trump era, with many such as Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune casting the vote as a stand against the oil and gas industry.
“People across the country will continue to resist and hold Congress and Trump accountable for any efforts to put the profits of polluters before the health of our families and our communities.”
Meanwhile the American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito called the vote “disappointing” in a statement, calling for review of the rule under a recent executive order released by the Trump White House.
Although McCain called the BLM rule “onerous,” he said the smarter thing was for the Trump administration to just release an updated rule to improve it. Because of the time limit on the CRA, a Congressional resolution aiming for another try at a repeal of the BLM methane rule is now out of time.
The vote had been so close that Vice President Mike Pence had come to Capitol Hill to split any tie in favor of repeal.
“Next time call ahead...could have saved you the trip,” Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat, tweeted to Pence after the vote.