A bureaucratic printer jam holds up a major Biden climate rule

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The Biden administration flew into last year's international climate negotiations with a big announcement: The U.S. had finished a major climate rule aimed at slashing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.

But nearly three months later, the government still hasn’t officially printed the rule — which means the clock hasn’t started for the regulation to take effect. The printing process typically takes just a few days.

The rule will finally appear in the Federal Register on March 8, the government said in a notice Friday, a day after POLITICO’s E&E News had written about the logjam. Federal officials have offered little explanation for the delay, aside from noting its size — well over 1,000 pages — and complexity.

The delay had stressed out environmental and public health advocates, who still fear a broader bureaucratic bottleneck as the Biden administration hustles to roll out lengthy and ambitious policies this year with alooming threat of possible rollbacks from a second Trump administration.

“I’m glad it’s happening,” Paul Billings, the national senior vice president for public policy at the American Lung Association, said after the publication was scheduled. “It certainly took a while.”

In an earlier interview, Billings had said: “This is the most important rule that the Biden administration did in 2023 on climate by far, and one they’ve been working on really since they came in the door in January 2021."

The new standards,EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in December at the U.N. climate talks in Dubai, will help the United States meet its international climate commitments and improve air quality for communities all across the country. Regan was there with White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi.

Publication in the government journal — which includes rules, notices and executive orders — triggers when rules take effect. It also kicks off a timeline that allows Congress to unravel rules — a process that environmental advocates worry a second Trump administration could use to torpedo Biden regulations in early 2025.

EPA’s methane rule is slated to take effect 60 days after publication, according to the unpublished version on the Federal Register’s website. Based on the new publication timetable, that would be early May.

Theagency sent a 1,690-page version of the regulation to the Office of the Federal Register — a shop within the National Archives and Records Administration — on Jan. 5, EPA spokesperson Nick Conger said in an email.

“Complex and extensive rulemakings can take more time than other actions to publish in the Federal Register,” Conger said. “EPA is confident, however, that we are on track to implement the Oil and Gas Methane Emissions Standards and that its full health and climate benefits will be realized. It’s important to note that industry, states, Tribes, and the public have had access to the pre-publication version of the standards since December.”

Fears of a 'traffic jam'

Rule experts point to the length of the final regulation, the holidays at the end of the year and formatting logistics as possible hiccups that might have delayed publication.

But a lag of nearly 12 weeks is “pretty extreme,” said James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for Progressive Reform.

Billings is wary of a “traffic jam” at the Office of the Federal Register as the Biden administration works to finalize a series of major regulations this year.

Alaw called the Congressional Review Act allows Congress to overturn agency rules within 60 legislative session days of when a regulation is finalized and sent to the Capitol. But Congress’ schedule can be hard to predict, and it’s not yet clear when the cutoff for shielding rules will be. Allies of the Biden administration hope to see regulations finalized and published by this spring to insulate them from possible Trump rollbacks.

Any regulation that agencies have completed but not yet published on Jan. 20, 2025, could also be ensnared by a new president’s move to freeze all pending rules — a standard practice for the first day of a new administration.

Historically, there’s been an uptick in the number of pages in the Federal Register at the end of administrations, said Susan Dudley, a senior scholar at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

At the end of the George W. Bush administration, career officials in the White House office that reviews rules were coordinating with the Federal Register office because the register was overwhelmed by everything agencies wanted to include, said Dudley, who led the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at that time.

“You see the Federal Register get backed up and just cannot print everything,” Dudley said.

When Richard Claypoole was director of the Office of the Federal Register back in the mid-1990s, the normal turnaround between an agency sending a rule to the office and publication was four days, he said in an interview.

A rule topping 1,600 pages would “take considerably longer for the Federal Register schedulers to review it,” said Claypoole, who's now retired. Timing would likely depend on the office's workload and the request from the issuing agency as to when they want it published, he added.

Allyson Pokres, chief of staff at the Office of the Federal Register, said the office typically publishes documents in three business days, but “an unusually high volume of documents submitted can cause lengthy and more complex documents to take longer to publish than is typical.”

The office processes documents for publication “on a first-in, first-out system, as much as possible, but the time it takes to get to and process a document depends on a number of factors,” Pokres said. Those include the number of other documents in the queue, the length and complexity of the document, the edits needed and the time it takes to work with agencies to resolve edits.

Goodwin urged agencies to keep possible publication lags in mind as they sprint toward their rule deadlines this year.

If you have a 1,600-page rule, “You're going to want to account for that,” Goodwin said. “It's going to take some processing time to get it through the Federal Register.”

A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.