WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday effectively reversed a regulation designed to prevent methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, from escaping into the atmosphere during oil and gas operations.
In the long-expected move, the Interior Department finalized its new rule, replacing one proposed by former President Barack Obama in the final days of his administration, that would have reduced leaking, venting and flaring of methane from drilling activity on federal and tribal land. The new regulation essentially reinstates the approximately 30-year-old guidelines that were in place when President Trump won the 2016 election.
It’s the Trump administration’s fourth major environmental rollback effort this year, coming after a plan to weaken greenhouse gas rules for power plants, an end to a rule requiring cars to be cleaner and more efficient, and a separate measure making it easier for companies to avoid monitoring and repairing methane leaks. Together the rules effectively put an end to the United States’ most significant regulatory efforts to address global warming.
“This is really about fulfilling our commitments to the policy vision that the president has established,” David Bernhardt, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said Tuesday. He noted that Mr. Trump, in an executive order in March, had directed the Interior Department to reconsider the Obama-era rule and others that “unduly burden” the development of domestic energy resources.
Mr. Bernhardt and Kate MacGregor, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Interior Department, said the new measures would help the industry avoid costly and duplicative red tape. Ms. McGregor described the plan, to be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, an arm of the agency, as “smart regulations that harness domestic energy production but do so responsibly.”
Environmental activists called the new rule a gift to the oil and gas industry. “This is a complete dismantling of federal methane regulation in the United States,” said Matt Watson, associate vice president of the energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental group.
Both methane rules are expected to face legal challenges, setting the stage for a battle over the coming months over how the federal government should monitor the oil and gas industry.
Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas that, along with carbon dioxide, is considered a primary driver of global warming. For the first 20 years after its release into the atmosphere, it is about 86 times as powerful as carbon dioxide at trapping heat. That effect weakens over the decades.
It is emitted into the atmosphere mostly from the burning of excess gas, known as flaring, as well as through leaks in gas wells, pumps and pipelines. Methane accounts for 9 percent of all domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and about a third of that is estimated to come from oil and gas operations.
The old rule, which never went into effect, would have required oil and gas companies to capture leaked methane, repair outdated leak-detection equipment and come up with new plans to reduce waste. Had it been finalized, it would have cut methane from the oil and gas sector by as much as 35 percent and helped the United States to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions goal under the global Paris Agreement on climate change.
The Trump administration has so far revised, rewritten or moved to repeal 76 environmental regulations, the vast majority of which would have helped curb climate change.
The Obama administration had argued the methane rule would have saved the United States about $188 million annually by allowing more natural gas to be sold and preventing the escape of methane and other pollutants. The oil and gas industry said it could cost as much as $279 million to implement and would hinder production.
Erik Milito, director of exploration and production with the American Petroleum Institute, an industry lobby group that opposed the rule, said if left in place the regulations would have discouraged new energy development. “The B.L.M. rule could have taken a lot of wells out of service, which is counter to what we’re trying to achieve here by making our country more self-reliant and less dependent on foreign sources,” he said.
Mr. Milito called the new rule “a positive step” though he said his organization was still reviewing the details.
The Obama-era regulation had already been the subject of several lawsuits. This year, the Interior Department lost a bid to suspend that rule while it worked to rescind it.
For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman