WASHINGTON — The EPA on Thursday proposed revoking Obama-era regulations on climate-changing methane leaks from many oil facilities, a move that environmental groups said was meant to renounce the agency's overall legal authority to regulate the gas in the fight against global warming.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the proposed rule followed President Donald Trump's directions to remove "unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry."
The step would be the latest in a series easing the previous administration's emissions controls on the oil, gas and coal industries, including a 2016 rule regulating oil-industry methane leaks as a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.
Methane is a component of natural gas that's frequently wasted through leaks or intentional releases during drilling operations. The gas is considered a more potent contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, although it occurs in smaller volumes.
Under Trump, both the Interior Department and the EPA have proposed a series of rules — some blocked by courts — to loosen regulations of methane emissions.
Environmental advocates and former EPA officials had said they expected the new methane plan to go further than previous proposals, with a goal of exempting companies from requirements to detect and stop methane leaks at existing oil and gas sites.
"Essentially, this is the umpteenth iteration of the EPA's exercise to define away its Clean Air Act authority ... to address air pollution and greenhouse gases," said Joseph Goffman, an EPA air official under President Barack Obama.
The oil and gas industry is the country's primary source of methane emissions, according to the EPA, accounting for nearly one-third in 2016.
Sen. Tom Carper, the ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, slammed the administration's proposal as "reckless" and "willfully ignorant" of calls for action on climate change.
“Over the last two and a half years, the Trump administration has continued to pursue a course that would increase profit margins for the oil and gas industry, even if it means cutting commonsense public health and environmental protections," the Delaware Democrat said in a statement. "Today’s proposal is another step down that troubling and misguided path."
“The risks posed by methane gas are deadly serious, which is why there has long been bipartisan consensus that we need to protect people and our planet from it," he continued. "We know that methane exposure causes illness or worse, especially among children. We also know that methane is a major driver of climate change, far more potent than carbon dioxide.
While environmental groups pointed to the long-term impact, the oil industry said the direct immediate effect on methane emissions would be negligible. Controls on other, regulated pollutants would also capture methane in the pipeline, said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute.
The Obama-era methane limits imposed "a disproportionate effect on small businesses" in the oil industry, Milito said. "A lot of mom and pops would have their wells shut in, elderly people with wells on their properties that could be shut down."
The rollbacks on emissions from oilfields, storage sites and pipelines have split the oil industry, worrying some in the industry about growing blowback in a world increasingly mindful of climate change.
Royal Dutch Shell this year urged the administration to crack down — not ease up — on the emissions. Many others in the oil and industry have welcomed the easing, however.
The latest rollback "highlights the Trump administration's complete contempt for our climate," Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, said in a statement. "The EPA is now so determined to actually increase greenhouse pollution that it's even shrugging off concerns from oil and gas companies about gutting these protections."