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Column: BLM Methane Repeal would hurt N.D. taxpayers

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate may vote to repeal a rule that helps ensure taxpayers get paid for natural gas removed from drilling on federal lands. If the Senate passes this resolution the end result will be more wasted resources, taxpayer losses and less revenue to North Dakota.

Furthermore, this will hobble attempts to write new rules to get this revenue in the future.

After a five year process, the Bureau of Land Management issued a rule in November clarifying when royalties will be collected from gas that's vented, flared or leaked instead of being captured and brought to market. This was a huge step towards taxpayers in North Dakota and across the country actually getting paid when gas that we all own is wasted. Congress is now considering a repeal of this rule under the Congressional Review Act.

Since it was signed into law in 1994, the CRA had been used only once before this Congress, in part, because it is a blunt instrument. If a rule is repealed through the CRA, no substantially similar rule can be adopted without an act of Congress. But taking the BLM out of the waste-prevention game will make the problem worse.

And it is a problem. The amount of gas flared from federal and tribal lands doubled from 2009 to 2013. The estimated value of gas lost on those lands was $390 million in 2013, and $440 million in 2014. Despite its value, 91 percent of all gas lost on federal lands in the last decade was not charged a royalty. In North Dakota alone, the amount of natural gas lost on federal leases in 2015 was more than 10 times the amount lost in 2006, and of all gas lost from 2006 to 2015, 99.98 percent was not charged a royalty.

While crafting rules to address the problem, the BLM borrowed from North Dakota's waste rules, which allow operators to comply with capture targets on a statewide average basis. As a result, the North Dakota compliance model will now apply to all federal lands, not just those in North Dakota.

The BLM, and only the BLM, has the responsibility to establish and collect royalties for oil and gas removed from federal lands that's owned by taxpayers in North Dakota and across the country. If the Senate repeals the waste rule, only Congress can go back and authorize a new rule. And given Congress's abysmal track record, this would effectively make the old rules written in 1979 permanent.

Interior Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration have already said they will revisit the BLM's new waste rule to address some industry concerns. We welcome any cost-effective changes that can help taxpayers. Senators Hoeven and Heitkamp should resist efforts to use the CRA on the methane rule and work for changes with the administration. If the Senate votes to repeal the methane waste rule it will allow vast amounts of gas to continue to go up in flames and lock in taxpayer losses for years to come.

Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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