The main component of natural gas, millions of tonnes of unburned methane, leak each year from natural gas and petroleum systems © REUTERS

Methane leaks from oil and gas wells will no longer be regulated in the US, as the Trump administration rolls back a set of environmental rules even in the face of opposition from large energy companies.

Andrew Wheeler, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, announced on Thursday that oil and gas production facilities would no longer have to monitor methane leaks.

Pipeline and storage facility owners, meanwhile, will not have to monitor methane or other compounds, known as volatile organic compounds.

The rules sparked anger when first proposed last August, not only from environmental campaigners, but even from large oil and gas companies. The EPA has pushed ahead, however, as part of a wider programme of rolling back environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration.

Speaking in Pennsylvania, a swing state with a large shale gas industry, Mr Wheeler said: “Regulatory burdens put into place by the Obama-Biden administration fell heavily on small and medium-sized energy businesses. Today’s regulatory changes remove redundant paperwork, align with the Clean Air Act, and allow companies the flexibility to satisfy leak-control requirements by complying with equivalent state rules.”

The EPA said they expect the move to save businesses up to $850m in compliance costs from 2021 to 2030. It said last year that it expected an extra 370,000 short tons of methane — equivalent to 8.4m tonnes of carbon dioxide — to be emitted as a result.

As the main component of natural gas, millions of tonnes of unburned methane leak each year from natural gas and petroleum systems, according to EPA data.

Methane traps heat in the atmosphere 25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide and accounts for 10 per cent of US greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Defense Fund, a green campaign group, said on Thursday it planned to sue the Trump administration for announcing the move without scientific justification.

Fred Krupp, the EDF’s president, said: “Like so many other administration rollbacks that have already been rejected by the courts, this one ignores the science, the public health impacts and the low-cost solutions we have at hand.”

BP said it remained committed to adhering to the regulations as put in place by the Obama administration. David Lawler, chairman of BP America, said the company opposed the rollback. “The direct federal regulation of methane emissions is a critical step to protecting the environment and keeping the gas in our pipes in order to provide it to the market,” he said.

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ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell have also opposed the Trump administration move.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, which lobbies on behalf of small and large US oil and gas operators, supported the changes.

Frank Macchiarola, senior vice-president at the API, said: “Our industry continues to drive down methane emissions from operations while meeting America’s energy needs every day.”

The US backtrack on methane sets it apart from other jurisdictions that have taken steps to control leaks including Canada and Mexico, said Sarah Smith of Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group. In Europe, comments on new methane standards closed last week, she said.

“The US is really alone in rolling this back,” she said. 

Lawyers say that Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, who was vice-president to Barack Obama, could reinstate the regulations if he wins November’s election. Mr Biden has pledged to impose “aggressive” methane limits the day he takes office. 

Some US oil and gas states are independently cracking down on methane leaks. Colorado, a significant shale producer, has standards in place, while New Mexico and Pennsylvania are pursuing them.

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