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Trump rollback would ease rules on climate-changing methane

The federal proposal would have a "minimal impact" on Pennsylvania's gas producers because Pennsylvania enacted stricter rules on methane leaks.

A Southwest Energy technician uses a special infrared camera to detect gas leaks at a well site in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
A Southwest Energy technician uses a special infrared camera to detect gas leaks at a well site in Northeastern Pennsylvania.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration moved closer Tuesday to rolling back Obama-era rules reducing oil and gas industry leaks of methane gas, one of the most potent agents of climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency formally released its proposed substitute for a 2016 Obama administration rule that aimed to step up detection and elimination of methane leaks at well sites and other oil and gas facilities. The agency's move is part of a broad Trump administration effort to undo President Barack Obama's legacy programs to fight climate change by cutting emissions from oil, gas, and coal.

The EPA's proposal Tuesday conceded that relaxing the Obama-era rule for methane leaks at oil and gas sites would put an additional 380,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere from 2019 to 2025. The amount is roughly equivalent to more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide, another fossil-fuel emission that receives far more attention in efforts to slow climate change.

The EPA noted that overall increased pollution as a result of its proposal "may also degrade air quality and adversely affect health and welfare." Relaxing federal oversight will save $75 million in regulatory costs annually, the agency said.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Colorado-based group that represents more than 300 companies, said the proposed changes would make the EPA rule more efficient and workable. The previous rule was overly burdensome and "full of red tape. This rule cleans that up, makes it more practical" for industry to comply, Sgamma said in an interview.

Oil and gas drillers have "a four-decade long trend to reduce emissions," and the new EPA rules recognize that reality, Sgamma said, adding that she hopes an Interior rule to be finalized in coming days will show a similar practical streak. The pending rule by the Bureau of Land Management applies to fracking sites on public lands.

Environmentalists contend energy companies already have demonstrated they can comply with tougher monitoring and that only poorly operated companies were having trouble with the new requirements.

"Once again, the Trump administration is putting the interests of the worst-operated oil and gas companies ahead of the health and welfare of everyday Americans," said Matt Watson, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The new methane proposal would relax a 2016 rule that required oil and gas drillers to perform leak inspections as frequently as every six months on equipment, and to repair leaks within 30 days. The proposed amendment would decrease the inspection frequency to once a year, in most cases, and would allow a producer 30 to 60 days to make repairs.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a shale-industry trade group, on Tuesday applauded the EPA's "commonsense regulatory reforms." But the group acknowledged the new rules would have a "minimal impact" on the state's gas producers because Pennsylvania enacted stricter rules on Aug. 8 that supersede the federal proposal.

Pennsylvania officials are still reviewing the proposal to see how it would affect the new state rules that set methane limits for construction of new unconventional natural gas wells, compression stations, and processing and transmission station sites along pipelines, said Neil Shader, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The new state rules require quarterly inspections and leak repairs to be completed within 15 days.

The Clean Air Council on Tuesday said the EPA proposal was "dangerous and reckless," and would allow methane leaks to go undetected and unrepaired for longer periods of time.

Operators of older conventional gas wells, which are exempt from the new Pennsylvania methane rules, would benefit from the EPA proposal because it would require inspections of their facilities only every two years. Conventional wells do not involve fracking shale formations, and produce less gas.

Environmental groups said the EPA's proposal would have more significant impact in states like Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma where the federal rules set the standard. Pennsylvania is the nation's second largest gas producer, behind Texas.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California on Tuesday told a meeting in San Francisco ahead of a climate conference there that President Trump's proposal to ease monitoring of methane releases is "insane" and "borders on criminality."

"It perhaps is the most obvious and dangerous and irresponsible action by Mr. Trump — and that's saying quite a lot," Brown said.

The EPA under Obama completed the existing rule in May 2016, and it took effect that August. Industry groups pushed the EPA to reconsider, and the Trump administration put parts of it on hold in May 2017.

The rule was reinstated by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington last year after environmental groups sued, and it remains in effect, according to the EPA.

Tuesday's action opens a 60-day period for public comment ahead of any final decision by the Trump administration.

In North Dakota, the nation's biggest oil-producing state after Texas, drillers scaled back production for a time this summer to keep so-called flaring — burning off of methane and other gases pumped up as waste by-products with the oil — within state limits.

North Dakota Air Quality Director Terry O'Clair said the state typically adopts "nothing more stringent than the federal rules." State officials would reconsider their recently toughened rules on oil field gas leaks if federal officials loosen theirs, he said.

Staff writer Andrew Maykuth contributed to this article.