Sen. John McCain on Wednesday handed Republican leadership and President Trump a stinging legislative defeat as he cast a surprise deciding vote to maintain an Obama-era regulation limiting methane emissions from oil and gas wells.
It was the first time the White House and congressional Republicans failed to rewrite or overturn environmental regulations put into place by the previous administration. That regulatory rollback, until Wednesday, united the party.
The Bureau of Land Management rule, put into place in November, has been in Republican crosshairs for months. The House has voted to eliminate the rule through the Congressional Review Act, a law that lets Congress unwind some recent regulations.
The Senate was expected to follow suit and deliver a win not just for Republican leadership and the administration, but also for their allies in the oil and gas industry. Instead, Mr. McCain and two fellow Republicans — Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan M. Collins of Maine — joined all 48 Democrats in voting against the measure, leading to its defeat in a 51-49 vote.
In a statement after the vote, Mr. McCain said the rule, while flawed, is important. Repealing it through the Congressional Review Act would limit future administrations from implementing similar measures.
“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. While I am concerned that the BLM rule may be onerous, passage of the resolution would have prevented the federal government, under any administration, from issuing a rule that is ‘similar,’ according to the plain reading of the Congressional Review Act,” the Arizona Republican said.
He joined other Republicans in calling on the Bureau of Land Management to issue a replacement rule.
Mr. Graham and Ms. Collins had publicly come out against the measure, but Mr. McCain’s vote was a surprise to Senate leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, likely would not have scheduled the vote unless he was confident that the rule would be overturned.
Top Democrats celebrated the surprise win. They had expected a defeat and even feared some of their own fossil-fuel-friendly senators such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III may break ranks.
“This is the first CRA to go down, and it’s probably the most important one that came before us,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Wednesday afternoon. “The people of America and the people of the world can breathe a sigh of relief.”
The rule is designed to prevent venting and flaring from oil and gas wells on public lands. Such activities increase the amount of methane emissions from wells, and critics say drilling companies have the ability and technology to control such pollution.
Critics of the rule said it adds unnecessary costs and regulations to oil and gas companies.
Environmentalists touted the vote as a key win against a Republicans effort to roll back limitations on energy exploration. Until Wednesday, that effort had been steaming along without setback.
“Reducing venting and flaring from oil wells will reduce emissions contributing to climate change and save public resources. Today the Senate proved it will not always rob taxpayers to line Big Oil’s pockets,” said Lukas Ross, climate and energy campaigner at the green group Friends of the Earth.
The Natural Resources Defense Council called the result “incredible news,” and the Environmental Defense Fund said the vote was “a huge victory for people and the planet.”
Oil and gas industry leaders castigated the Senate for failing to deliver when given a golden opportunity.
“This overreaching rule puts independent producers — many of which are small family-run businesses with limited resources — on the hook for complying with the costly burdens of a flawed regulation,” said Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Critics of the rule blasted the Senate as a whole, particularly after the chamber rushed into the vote with little debate.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed the Senate didn’t even have the wherewithal to debate overturning the rule on the floor,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
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