The Trump administration is proposing to slash restrictions on the oil and gas industry for methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that is a powerful driver of climate change.
Environmental groups are alarmed. "This would be a huge step backward," said Ben Ratner, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund. "It would cause greatly increased pollution and a big missed opportunity to take cost effective immediate action to reduce the rate of warming right now."
The Trump administration argues it would save the oil and gas industry $17 million to $19 million annually in compliance costs. But that's "such a small fraction of the industry total cash flow that it's just laughable," says Harvard University's Steven Wofsy, a professor of atmospheric and environmental science.
The Trump administration also says it does not anticipate an increase in the level of methane emissions if the proposal is implemented — but scientists disagree with that assumption.
Methane powerfully traps heat, and can warm the atmosphere at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the oil and gas industry is the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
In March 2017, Trump ordered agencies to "review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources." This proposal came out of that review.
In a statement describing the proposal, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler reiterated an argument against such regulations often used by the oil and gas industry: "The Trump Administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use."
Critics of that logic say that it doesn't always make immediate economic sense for companies to upgrade old, leaky equipment for newer models, even if they could use the leaked methane.
Industry reaction was mixed. The American Petroleum Institute welcomed the rollback. "The oil and natural gas industry is laser-focused on cutting methane emissions through industry initiatives, smart regulations, new technologies, and best practices," said Erik Milito, API's Vice President of Upstream and Industry Operations.
But some oil and gas companies, including Shell, BP and Exxon, have actually supported the Obama-era regulations.
"Shell remains committed to achieving our target of maintaining methane emissions intensity below 0.2% by 2025 for all operated assets globally," Shell U.S. President Gretchen Watkins said in a statement. "Despite the Administration's proposal to no longer regulate methane, Shell's U.S. assets will continue to contribute to that global target."
The greenhouse gas methane is released at many points in the industry: "Methane is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas and the production, refinement, transportation, and storage of crude oil," the EPA has said.
The EPA's main proposal on methane, released Thursday, would "remove sources [from regulation] in the transmission and storage segment of the oil and gas industry." It would also rescind emissions limits on methane from the production and processing steps.
The Trump administration points out that U.S. methane emissions are on a downward trend, and argues that will continue, despite the rollback to regulations. In a phone call with reporters, EPA acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation Anne Idsal said that existing limits for ozone-forming volatile organic compounds will remain in place for the industry's production and processing sectors.
"Frankly, the controls to reduce VOC emissions also reduce methane emissions at the same time, so we don't believe that separate methane limitations for that segment of the industry are necessary – and quite frankly, are redundant," Idsal said.
Stanford University's Adam Brandt, an energy resources engineering professor who focuses on greenhouse gas emissions, does not agree.
"This proposal is likely to result in higher methane emissions and to stall progress the industry has made in detecting and fixing leaks," he said. Brandt also said existing limits on VOCs will not reduce methane emissions as much as is needed to meet climate goals.
Harvard scientist Wofsy agreed that there's no evidence the rollback won't increase methane emissions. "I think it will have significant negative impact," he says.
He said this proposal withdraws regulations from parts of the oil and gas industry notorious for emitting methane, such as storage tanks.
New York Attorney General Letitia James decried the plan as part of an "unconscionable assault on the environment," and vowed to "use the full power of my office to fight back against this."
The proposal will go through a 60 day public comment period, and the EPA will hold a hearing about it in Texas. If the change becomes final, it will likely face legal challenges. That means the proposal might not take effect before the 2020 election.
NPR's Jeff Brady contributed to this report.