The Trump administration on Thursday proposed rescinding Obama-era limits on oil and gas industry emissions of methane, one of the main pollutants scientists link to climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that easing a 2016 regulation that specifically targeted methane emissions from oil and gas wells, pipelines and storage would save energy companies up to US$123 million through 2025. The plan will undergo a period of public comment before being finalised, and environmental groups pledged court action to try to block repeal of the limits.
The proposal "removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry", EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said.
The EPA said it will keep rules issued in 2012 that limit emissions known as volatile organic compounds that cause smog and also control methane emissions. Anne Idsal, acting assistant administrator for air and radiation at EPA told reporters she expects methane emissions to fall in coming years due to the 2012 rule and because energy companies have an incentive to minimize leaks of methane, which has value as the main component of natural gas.
Environmentalists say energy companies do not always do enough to control leaks, partially because low prices resulting from a natural gas glut sometimes make it cheaper to release the methane.
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Some large energy companies including BP favour federal regulation of methane, saying the regulatory certainty is preferable to a patchwork of varying rules by states and legal challenges by environmentalists. BP has said it is already taking steps to limit methane emissions.
The move is President Donald Trump's latest easing of rules designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including many put forth by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump, who insists he is an environmentalist, has also relaxed rules on carbon emissions from vehicles and intends to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.
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Concern about climate has spiked amid fires in the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest, the melting of ice in Greenland, and as Hurricane Dorian threatened Florida. Democrats seeking their party's nomination in the 2020 US presidential election will participate in a series of town halls on climate next week.
'See them in court'
In 2016, Obama's EPA issued the first rule specifically limiting methane emissions from new oil and gas fracking operations including transport equipment. Thursday's proposal would rescind that and specific regulations on existing sources of methane.
The oil and gas business is the largest single source of methane emissions, a major factor in global warming. The gas has more than 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it escapes into the atmosphere, scientists say.
Susan Dio, chairman and President of BP America, supported federal regulation of methane in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle this year calling it the "the best way to help further reduce and ultimately eliminate methane emissions industrywide."
Exxon Mobil also supports federal regulation of methane from oil and gas sources.
"We will continue to urge the EPA to retain the main features of the existing methane rule," a company official said.
The EPA said some smaller energy companies had a hard time complying with the costs of the rules.
Environmentalists vowed to sue the administration.
"We simply cannot protect our children and grandchildren from climate catastrophe if EPA lets this industry off scot-free," said David Doniger, a climate and clean energy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If EPA moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court."