American Petroleum Institute was among the groups on the Interior secretary’s May schedule.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke met with several oil and gas industry officials in May. CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held meetings with officials from fossil fuel companies and powerful industry trade groups less than a month before the Department of the Interior postponed compliance dates for a rule designed to limit methane waste from drilling sites on public lands.

On May 22, for instance, Zinke met with officials from the American Petroleum Institute, an oil and gas trade group that opposed the Obama administration’s implementation of the methane waste rule, according to a redacted copy of his schedule obtained by Politico.

Two days after that, Zinke participated in a video call with Newfield Exploration Co., the largest oil producer in Utah. A large portion of Newfield’s drilling operations in Utah are conducted on federally managed lands. The secretary also called into the May 25 board meeting of the U.S. Oil & Gas Association, an industry group whose members hold oil and gas leases on federal lands.

Earlier in May, Zinke held video conference calls with two conservation-oriented organizations: the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation group based in Washington; and the Partnership of Rangeland Trust, a Colorado-based association of agriculture land conservation organizations.

A few weeks after Zinke’s meetings with oil and gas industry officials, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Interior Department, entered a notice into the Federal Register stating it would delay compliance with the methane rule, finalized last November by the Obama administration.

The notice did not say whether the department would propose a new rule to replace the existing regulation. At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last month, Zinke indicated his agency may rework the regulation to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands, according to E&E News.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year span, so leaking methane can be a huge problem. While natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, leaks in the system can eliminate the climate benefits.

Supporters of the methane waste rule contend it would prevent roughly 180,000 tons a year of methane from escaping into the atmosphere. Studies show the rule would save $330 million worth of taxpayer-owned gas annually and would result in $800 million in direct payments to the public over the next decade.

Attorneys general from California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit Wednesday over Zinke’s postponement of the Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste prevention rule. Both states contend the Trump administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act in delaying certain compliance dates associated with the rule indefinitely because the overall regulation had already taken effect in January when President Donald Trump took office.

In the lawsuit, the states also maintain that the Interior Department’s failure to implement the rule will cost California taxpayers substantial royalty payments and furthers the Trump administration’s attack on public health. In May, the Republican-controlled Senate failed in its bid to block the regulation using the Congressional Review Act.

According to his May schedule, Zinke also met with officials from the White Stallion Energy Center, a now-abandoned effort to build a large coal-fired power plant in Texas. The coal plant developer gave $175,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.

Meanwhile, Zinke signed a secretarial order on Thursday instructing the BLM to take steps to speed up the oil and gas permitting process on public lands. His order directs the agency to try to make permitting decisions for oil and gas drilling on federal lands in 30 days, rather than the 257-day average it achieved last year.

Zinke also directed the BLM to conduct quarterly lease sales. “By streamlining approvals of responsible energy development on federal land, and actually holding lease sales, we will generate revenue for local communities and the Treasury to fund the things we all value like National Parks, infrastructure and education,” he said in a statement.

Environmental groups criticized the decision, describing it as another move to encourage more drilling on public lands. Fast-tracking oil and gas exploration and production on public lands is “another sad example of the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel-first agenda that puts taxpayers, our health, and our treasured public lands last,” Sharon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement Thursday.

Buccino said NRDC will continue to resist efforts to give oil and gas companies greater access to public lands. “Our precious public lands should be held in trust for all Americans — not sold off to those who would desecrate them for profit,” she said.

The Trump administration is committed to giving away as much as possible to the oil and gas industry, Kelly Martin, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. Trump and Zinke “share the same priority: giving Big Oil free rein on our publicly owned lands, whatever the cost to our health and our environment,” Martin said.