CreditCreditBrennan Linsley/Associated Press
The Trump administration laid out on Thursday a far-reaching plan to cut back on the regulation of methane emissions, a major contributor to climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in its proposed rule, aims to eliminate federal requirements that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities. It will also reopen the question of whether E.P.A. even has the legal authority to regulate methane as a pollutant.
The rollback is particularly notable because major energy companies have, in fact, spoken out against it — joining the ranks of automakers, electric utilities and other industrial giants that have opposed other administration initiatives to dismantle climate-change and environmental rules. Several of the world’s largest auto companies are pushing back against Mr. Trump’s plans to let vehicles pollute more, and utilities have opposed the relaxation of restrictions on toxic mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants.
E.P.A. officials said the new rule is a response to President Trump’s calls to trim or eliminate regulations that impede economic growth or keep the nation reliant on energy imports.
The plan “delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” said E.P.A. administrator Andrew Wheeler. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.”
Mr. Wheeler noted that since 1990, natural gas production in the United States has almost doubled while methane emissions across the industry has fallen 15 percent.
Anne Isdal, the agency’s acting senior clean-air official, said the rules being eliminated have “minimal environmental benefits.”
Environmental advocates described the proposal as a major setback in the effort to fight climate change. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.
“The Trump E.P.A. is eager to give the oil and gas industry a free pass to keep leaking enormous amounts of climate pollution into the air,” said David Doniger, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. “If E.P.A. moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court.”
Under the proposal, methane, the main component of natural gas, would be only indirectly regulated. A separate but related category of gases, known as volatile organic compounds, would remain regulated under the new rule, and those curbs would have the side benefit of averting some methane emissions.
The new rule must go through a period of public comment and review, and would most likely be finalized early next year, analysts said.
Over all, carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas, but methane is a close second. It lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time but packs a bigger punch while it lasts. By some estimates, methane has 80 times the heating-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
Methane currently makes up nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A significant portion of that comes from the oil and gas industry. Other sources include cattle and agriculture.
The E.P.A.’s economic analysis of the rule estimates that it would save the oil and natural gas industry $17 to $19 million a year.
The methane regulation has been in the administration’s cross hairs since Mr. Trump’s earliest days in office. In March 2017, Scott Pruitt, then the E.P.A. administrator, tried to suspend the regulation while the agency considered an alternative, but a federal appeals court ruled the move unlawful.
Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the new rule, saying, “We think it’s a smarter way of targeting methane emissions.”
Smaller oil and gas companies have complained to the Trump administration about the Obama rule, saying it is too costly for them to perform leak inspections. But major oil and gas companies have called on the Trump administration to tighten restrictions on methane.
The larger companies have invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas — which produces about half as much carbon dioxide as coal — as a cleaner option than coal in the nation’s power plants. They fear that unrestricted leaks of methane could undermine that marketing message, hurting demand.
Susan Dio, the chairwoman and president of BP America, wrote an op-ed article in March saying that regulating methane is the “right thing to do for the planet” and for the natural gas industry. “To maximize the climate benefits of gas — and meet the dual challenge of producing more energy with fewer emissions — we need to address its Achilles’ heel and eliminate methane emissions,” she wrote.
Ben Ratner, a senior director with the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that works closely with oil companies to track and reduce methane emissions, said that as renewable energy becomes more affordable, it could undercut the industry message that natural gas is a cleaner energy source. “The reputation of American natural gas is at the precipice, and methane rollbacks are the shove,” Mr. Ratner said.
Ms. Isdal, the E.P.A.’s acting clean-air chief, said companies that opposed the Trump rollback would be free to keep abiding by the Obama-era rules if they wished. “We don’t preclude anybody from going above and beyond if that’s what they think they need to do from a business or compliance standpoint,” she said.
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Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman