UPDATED: Heitkamp Influenced By Tribe’s Position As Senate Fails To Repeal Federal Methane Rule

WASHINGTON – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., voted Wednesday, May 10, against repealing a federal rule related to methane emissions, a regulation supported by tribal and environmental groups but considered “disastrous” by North Dakota’s energy industry.

Congress proposed to repeal the Bureau of Land Management rule on methane emissions from federal and tribal lands approved during the final weeks of the Obama administration.

Heitkamp, considered a key vote on the issue, had not publicly stated her position on the issue before the vote. On Wednesday, she was among 51 senators who voted no on a procedural motion to repeal the rule using the Congressional Review Act, while 49 senators voted yes.

Heitkamp said she heard from North Dakotans on both sides of the issue and seriously weighed their concerns.

Support for the rule from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation was a significant factor in her decision, Heitkamp said. The rule would have the greatest impact on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which accounts for about one-sixth of North Dakota’s oil production.

“I thought it was critically important that we listen to the people of the tribe and the tribal government,” Heitkamp told Forum News Service, adding that the tribal members live where much of the venting and flaring is occurring and are the most affected by the rule.

However, Heitkamp added the rule is not perfect and she is encouraging Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to work with the industry, landowners and tribes to make the rule more effective rather than overturn it.

Heitkamp and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sent a letter Wednesday to Zinke urging “significant modifications” to the rule.

Heitkamp joined other Democrats in opposing a repeal as well as Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine.

A natural gas flare on an oil well pad burns as the sun sets outside Watford City, North Dakota January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who spoke against the rule from the Senate floor this week, was among the 49 senators who supported overturning the rule.

Hoeven said methane emissions are already being regulated by states and the industry, pointing to North Dakota’s reduction in natural gas flaring from 35 percent to 10 percent.

“BLM’s methane rule imposes unnecessary and unworkable mandates on top of North Dakota’s successful approach to reducing flaring, and it is unfortunate that we were not able to repeal this duplicative and costly regulation,” Hoeven said in a statement Wednesday.

MHA Chairman Mark Fox said Wednesday the Tribal Business Council did not support overturning the BLM rule. Tribal leaders asked Heitkamp to revise the rule, allowing for more deference to tribal regulations, he said.

“Flaring is a significant problem on Fort Berthold,” Fox said. “We’ve got to get this problem under control, capturing gas and people getting paid for the resources and not polluting the environment.”

Environmental groups, including the Dakota Resource Council and the Western Organization of Resource Councils, thanked Heitkamp for her vote.

“For people like me in Indian Country, this rule means less waste of natural gas, cleaner air and more money to support tribal communities,” said Lisa DeVille of Mandaree, president of Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights.

The Taxpayers for Common Sense called the vote “a win for taxpayers” and advocated for stronger protections for limiting waste.

Heitkamp also received criticism for her vote, with the North Dakota Republican Party posting on Twitter she “voted against ND energy and jobs.”

The North Dakota Petroleum Council, which urged Heitkamp to vote against what it called “disastrous regulation,” said Heitkamp chose to stand with environmental activists and the Democratic Party over oil and gas workers and North Dakotans.

“The industry supports the goals of capturing greater quantities of associated gas and reducing waste but this duplicative and unnecessary rule comes at an enormous cost to the state’s economy, tax revenues and private mineral owners,” Ron Ness, president of the industry group, said in a statement.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he was “extremely disappointed” with senators who voted against the repeal, calling it a “vote against workers and families in western North Dakota.”

Heitkamp said she believes the impact of the rule on North Dakota jobs has been overstated.

“I do not believe one job will be lost in the Oil Patch as a result of this regulation,” Heitkamp said.

North Dakota joined several other states in a lawsuit to block the federal rule. North Dakota’s Industrial Commission considers it a “states’ rights” issue with the BLM rule overlapping with state regulations to reduce flaring.

“This duplicative rule intrudes on our state’s authority to regulate oil and gas waste on state and privately owned lands, creating confusion over jurisdictional boundaries while not fully acknowledging the tremendous progress North Dakota and the industry have made to reduce flaring,” said Gov. Doug Burgum, chairman of the Industrial Commission.

Heitkamp said she expects Secretary Zinke will request the district court in Wyoming to remand the methane rule back to the Bureau of Land Management to reconsider some of the issues in the lawsuit.

“Now this is back in his court to do the modification,” Heitkamp said.