BILLINGS, Mont. — The Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era rule meant to curb climate-changing pollution on Tuesday, easing restrictions on energy companies that allow huge volumes of natural gas to escape after drilling it from U.S. lands.
The move rescinds much of a 2016 rule adopted under President Barack Obama that forced energy companies to capture methane, a key contributor to climate change. The replacement rule from the Interior Department does not have the same mandates for companies to reduce gas pollution.
It comes a week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed weakening a similar rule for emissions from public and private lands.
"We're for clean air and water, but at the same time, we're for reasonable regulations," Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told reporters.
Bernhardt and other Interior officials were unable to say how much the new rule would reduce methane emissions. The prior regulation would have cut emissions by up to 180,000 tons a year.
The replacement rule would eliminate almost all of an estimated $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion in costs over 10 years that companies faced to comply with the Obama-era regulation.
Methane is a component of natural gas that's frequently wasted through leaks or intentional releases during drilling operations. The gas is considered a more potent contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, although it occurs in smaller volumes.
An estimated $330 million a year in methane is wasted on federal lands, enough to power about 5 million homes a year.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico criticized the rollback as a "giveaway to irresponsible polluters."
The Obama rule had been tied up in the courts ever since its adoption. It was put on hold in April by a federal judge in Wyoming.
Energy companies said it was overly intrusive and that companies have an economic incentive to capture the methane so they can sell it. That's not always practical in fast-growing oil and gas fields, where large volumes of gas are burned off using flares.
Flaring has been a common practice in states including Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and New Mexico.