WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is expected in the coming days to lift Obama-era controls on the release of methane, a powerful climate-warming gas that is emitted from leaks and flares in oil and gas wells.
The new rule on methane pollution, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, has been expected for months, and will be made public before Friday, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke anonymously to avoid publicly pre-empting the official announcement.
The rollback of the methane rule is the latest move in the Trump administration’s ongoing effort to weaken environmental standards, which has continued unabated during the coronavirus pandemic.
In April, the E.P.A. weakened rules on the release of toxic chemicals from coal-fired power plants, loosened curbs on climate-warming tailpipe pollution and opted not to strengthen a regulation on industrial soot emissions that have been linked to respiratory diseases, including Covid-19.
In July, President Trump unilaterally weakened one of the nation’s bedrock conservation laws, the National Environmental Policy Act, limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects in an effort to speed up the permitting process for freeways, power plants and pipelines.
However, this and any other regulatory changes put forth by the Trump administration in the latter half of 2020 could be quickly undone in the first half of 2021, if, as polls now suggest, Joseph R. Biden Jr. wins the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate. That’s because of a Senate procedure known as the Congressional Review Act, which gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to overturn major new regulations issued by federal agencies. In the early days of the Trump administration, Republicans used the procedure to undo 14 Obama-era rules.
The E.P.A.’s new methane rule eliminates federal requirements that oil and gas companies must install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage sites.
E.P.A. officials say the new, weaker methane rule is needed to free the oil and gas industry from what they call crippling regulations at a moment when companies are suffering from plummeting prices and falling demand driven by a sharp global economic slowdown. The weakening of the rule, however, has been in the works for more than a year.
Environmentalists called the move another blow by Mr. Trump to the planet’s warming climate, coming behind reversals of rules on climate-warming carbon dioxide pollution from tailpipes and power plants, and the United States withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement.
Oil and gas companies have had mixed responses to the rollback. Some major companies have spoken out against the weakening of methane regulations — joining some automakers, electric utilities and other industrial giants that have opposed other administration initiatives to dismantle climate change and environmental rules.
But smaller, independent oil companies are expected to applaud the rule as a welcome measure of relief when many are struggling to stay afloat.
Most climate change regulations target carbon dioxide, which is produced by burning fossil fuels and is the most damaging greenhouse gas. Methane, which is a close second, lingers in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time but packs a bigger punch while it lasts. By some estimates, methane has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
Methane currently makes up nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A significant portion of that comes from the oil and gas industry, although other sources include cattle and agriculture.
In August, Andrew Wheeler, the head of the E.P.A., made public a draft of the methane rule, saying at the time that it “removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry.”
Peter Zalzal, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, called the new rule “a deeply misguided action” that “is manifestly inconsistent with the agency’s legal obligations, and with the science that shows methane is a dangerous pollutant.”
Lee Fuller, a vice president at the Independent Petroleum Producers of America, which represents smaller oil and gas companies, said that “the burden of the rule falls overwhelmingly on smaller, independent companies.”
They have a rule that was written for all these bigger companies,” Mr. Fuller said. “They would basically be continuing to do what they’re already doing now. But these small companies — that rule would just kill them.”
Several of the biggest oil and gas companies have called on the Trump administration to tighten restrictions on methane, not loosen them. Larger energy companies have invested millions of dollars to promote natural gas as a cleaner option than coal in the nation’s power plants, because natural gas produces about half as much carbon dioxide when burned. They fear that unrestricted leaks of methane could undermine that marketing message and hurt demand.
In a 2019 public comment on a draft of the rule, Joe Ellis, a vice president at BP, urged the E.P.A. “to continue to regulate methane emissions from new sources and to adopt a rule for existing sources. E.P.A. regulation of methane across the value chain is the right thing to do for the environment, will support consistent regulation across the U.S. and can be cost-effectively achieved with new technology.”
Exxon urged the E.P.A. in 2018 to maintain core elements of the Obama administration’s policy. Gretchen Watkins, the United States chairwoman for Shell, which has urged the Trump administration to regulate methane emissions, said, “the negative impacts of methane have been widely acknowledged for years, so it’s frustrating and disappointing to see the administration go in a different direction.”