Study Suggests Obama Flaring Rule Heitkamp Voted to Maintain Was Based on Inflated Numbers

A flare on a North Dakota oil well. Forum News Service file photo

During the early days of the Trump administration Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who is now trying to portray herself this election cycle as a close Trump ally, was the deciding vote to keep in place an Obama-era rule on flaring.

Immediately after casting that vote with her fellow Democrats Heitkamp immediately began a furious campaign to distance herself from support of the rule itself. No doubt because the rule is really terrible policy for the oil and gas industry, a constituency Heitkamp covets as she attempts re-election here in North Dakota.

Heitkamp has promised a “better way” to regulate flaring than the rule she voted to keep in place, though to date a “better way” proposal hasn’t been in evidence from the Senator.

Now a review of federal data shows that the rule itself may have been based on some seriously faulty data. “In its waning months, the Obama administration finalized controversial regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands. But a review of federal data by Texans for Natural Gas reveals how the Obama administration may have relied on inflated estimates of methane emissions to justify its rulemaking,” a statement from the group released today reads.

“[T]he overall downward revision in methane emissions from petroleum production since 2016, including the downward revisions in venting and flaring emissions specifically, suggests the Obama administration may have overestimated methane emissions when it finalized the venting and flaring rule,” the group concludes.

You can read their argument in full here, and it’s compelling stuff. Though a little complicated.

Basically the Obama administration was, not unreasonably, concerned about the flaring of natural gas. So they promulgated a rule through the Bureau of Land Management which aimed to reducing the volume of gas flared from development on federal lands.

Only the rule was onerous and needs, at the very least, to be changed (as Senator Heitkamp herself has called for). But the Texans for Natural Gas review suggests it may have also been based on a fundamentally phony premise.

When the BLM published this new rule in the Federal Register they said the data they used for it “are based on emissions factors that are representative rather than actual” and that the flaring estimates resulting from that data “are conservative.”

The Obama administration was arguing that the flaring problem was even larger than what their data depicted.

Except actual flaring numbers say otherwise.

“Methane emissions from associated gas venting and flaring during petroleum production declined 17 percent between 2013 and 2016, even as domestic oil production increased by 19 percent,” the Texans for Natural Gas statement reads. “Methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas well completions declined 82 percent between 2013 and 2016. EPA’s estimates for associated gas venting and flaring in 2015 are now 54 percent lower than what the agency estimated last year. Emissions estimates for prior years show even larger downward revisions.”

“[T]he overall downward revision in methane emissions from petroleum production since 2016, including the downward revisions in venting and flaring emissions specifically, suggests the Obama administration may have overestimated methane emissions when it finalized the venting and flaring rule,” the group concludes.

So not only is this onerous rule which needs reform still in place, thanks to Senator Heitkamp’s vote, there also seem to be some very real problems with the data used to justify it.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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