MANDAREE, North Dakota . - Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation residents, who live at the center of the oil fields in the Bakken Formation here, steered a virtual welcome wagon to the courthouse steps July 16, to thank a federal judge for an order cancelling a two-year-long rollback of protections against leaked and flared frack gases at wellheads.
“The court’s ruling is a victory for people who are bearing the brunt of federal and tribal oil-and-gas development,” said Lisa Deville, vice chair of Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, or POWER, which is one of many organizations nationwide that joined states in suing over the rollback of pollution controls.
In September of 2018 the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, announced the rollback of the 2016 regulations for Waste Prevention, Production Subject to Royalties, and Resource Conservation, commonly called the Methane Rule or the Waste Prevention Rule.
The rule had been approved on the basis of BLM parent Interior Department data showing that companies wasted an estimated 462 billion cubic feet of gas on public and tribal lands through venting, flaring and leaks between 2009 and 2015 — enough gas to serve more than 6.2 million homes for a year.
The primary component of that gas is methane, a greenhouse gas 87 times more powerful than its closest competitor, carbon dioxide. Other wellhead pollutants that are leaked and vented contribute to smog formation, causing respiratory problems. Some frack waste pollutants, like benzene, are known carcinogens.
Northern District of California U.S. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers rebuffed the agency for its refusal to investigate the public health impacts of rescinding this rule on the people living near oil-and-gas facilities, especially those on tribal lands.
“BLM has failed to satisfy its ‘hard look’ obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act with respect to the rescission’s impact on public health, both generally, and specifically on tribal communities,” she wrote. She ordered the rule be reinstated within 90 days.
Meanwhile, DeVille observed, every day that passes, “invisible methane spills impact our people's health, contributing to asthma and other respiratory health issues.”
In reaching a decision, the judge acknowledged evidence showing that the environmental impacts of wasted frack gas are an environmental justice issue for Native Americans living in low-income communities.
A judge found that the Trump administration’s attempt to rescind the Waste Prevention Rule violated the law. The Obama-era rule, controlling venting, flaring, and leaking of gas from drilling on federal and tribal lands, will go back into effect. https://t.co/jN1604MFUl
She relied on case law “concluding that tribal communities experience disproportionate health risks from oil-and-gas emissions because they are more likely to live within 0.5 miles of an oil-and-gas well, and that Native Americans living on tribal land in North Dakota, New Mexico, and Utah experience more than double each state’s average poverty rates.”
The judge also relied on DeVille’s testimony at public hearings for the establishment of the Methane Rule dating back six years. When the rule took effect, some 11,000 people lived within a mile of a flare in North Dakota, DeVille testified.