WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency is set to announce Thursday that it will loosen federal rules on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change, according to two officials briefed on the decision.
The proposed rule will reverse standards enacted under President Barack Obama that require oil and gas operations to install controls on their operations to curb the release of methane at the well head and in their transmission equipment, including pipelines and storage facilities.
Methane is a primary component of natural gas. The natural gas and oil industries account for a quarter of U.S. methane emissions, so the federal rollback could impact Pennsylvania, though the state has its own regulations.
Pennsylvania accounts for almost 20 percent of all natural gas production in the U.S., second only to Texas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s because the massive Marcellus Shale formation runs under the state.
Energy companies use hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, to extract gas trapped within the shale formation.
David Masur, executive director of the nonprofit PennEnvironment, said the rollback “would put the commonwealth’s present and future at risk.”
“This move to loosen regulations on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, flies in the face of science and the growing call from Pennsylvania’s citizens and businesses to urgently tackle the climate crisis,” said Masur, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Moms Clean Air Force, and the Environmental Defense Fund, both active in Pennsylvania, also lambasted the proposal.
“Voluntary measures are not working, and children are already being exposed to harmful air pollution,” said Patrice Tomcik, of Moms Clean Air Force, and who lives in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Today’s proposal is a direct threat to our children’s health and future.”
And Matt Watson, a vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the proposal, “dangerous and out of step with calls from oil and gas industry leaders to preserve and strengthen federal methane rules.”
Several of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Shell and BP, have opposed the rollback and urged the Trump administration to keep the current standards in place. Collectively, these firms account for 11 percent of America's natural gas output.
The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the rollback.
Methane is a significant contributor to the world's greenhouse gas emissions, though it is shorter lived than carbon dioxide and is not emitted in as large amounts. It is 80 times more powerful than CO2 and often leaked as companies drill for gas and transport it across the country.
But a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public, said Trump officials were confident the oil and gas industry had an economic incentive to limit methane because capturing it allows companies to sell more gas.
The official added that the EPA will propose regulating volatile organic compounds, which are also released during oil and gas operations, rather than methane directly. Such limits could cut down on the amount of methane released in the process.
Last September, the Interior Department eased requirements that oil and gas firms operating on federal and tribal land capture the release of methane.
Environmentalists threatened to fight the Trump administration's move in court.
"This reckless rollback highlights the Trump administration's complete contempt for our climate," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. "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. Fracked gas is a climate killer, and Trump's rash embrace of this dirty stuff showcases the need for the next president to commit to a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels."
Ben Ratner, a senior director at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that rolling back the regulations could reward bad actors in the industry. Given the fact that many major players had embraced limits on methane, Ratner said, it made little sense for Trump officials to ease such restrictions.
"It's more of an ideological reaction to regulation of any climate pollutant by the federal government," he said.
The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis contributed to this report.