The Senate voted Wednesday to preserve an Obama administration regulation, which limits the release of methane from oil and gas wells located on public land. Fifty one senators, including Republicans John McCain from Arizona, Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, and Susan Collins from Maine, blocked consideration of a resolution to repeal the Interior Department rule. All three are Republicans who have voiced concerns about climate change and have supported other legislation to address the problem.
The victory is also significant as the first defeat of a series of moves in the last four months using the Congressional Review Act to repeal Obama-era regulations. It also came at a crucial time when Trump’s support in congress is showing signs of weakening.
Democratic Leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said of the vote, that “people of America and people of the world can breathe a sigh of relief.”
Vice President Mike Pence was sent to the Senate floor to cast a tie breaking vote, but three Republican defections, rather than just two, meant that Pence could do nothing to alter the outcome.
The League of Conservation Voters, alongside other environmental groups, had been lobbying for Republicans to preserve the methane rule. Their senior vice president, Tiernan Sittenfeld, said “we were surprised and thrilled to win on this. This is clearly a huge win for our health and our climate.”
Though Senators Collins and Graham had announced that they would oppose the measure, McCain’s vote came as a surprise. McCain had faced substantial lobbying from environmentalists and supporters of the methane rule.
In a statement on his reasoning for the vote, McCain said:
“Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue, which is why some states are moving forward with their own regulations requiring greater investment in recapture technology. 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.”
However, McCain did say he would support Trump administration plans to rewrite the rule. If Congress had blocked the rule entirely, the administration would have been unable to pass any similar legislation, according to the rules of the Congressional Review Act.
The defeat for opponents of rule comes near the end of the window to use the Congressional Review Act to block Obama-era regulations. The act allows congress to vote to erase new regulations from the executive branch, within 60 legislative days of their completion. The Trump White House has pushed congress to undo over a dozen Obama administration regulations since inauguration.