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A True Drilling rig operates Feb. 14, 2017 near Wright. The Environmental Protection Agency withdrew an Obama-era regulation that required oil and gas companies report methane emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency will not require surveys from oil and gas operators meant to help the department craft a rule on existing sources of methane emissions, the agency announced Thursday.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt withdrew the Obama-era demand that producers complete surveys detailing methane emissions from production one day after a complaint letter from nine states, including Texas and Oklahoma, argued the surveys were time-consuming and costly for oil and gas producers.

Pruitt, the former attorney general for Oklahoma, said the agency would consider whether data collection was needed from industry before proceeding.

“By taking this step, EPA is signaling that we take these concerns seriously and are committed to strengthening our partnership with the states,” Pruitt said in a statement.

Industry, which had originally petitioned the EPA for more input in the rule-making process on emissions, welcomed the withdrawal Thursday, stating that the EPA’s information request had turned into a punitive exercise in paperwork.

“This information-gathering effort should have been a real opportunity for the decision-makers at EPA to better understand the complexities of the U.S. oil and natural gas industry, which ended up not being the case,” Lee Fuller, executive vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement Thursday.

In Wyoming, where a significant portion of land is public, operators have pointed out that increasing red tape required by federal agencies to do business creates an uneven playing field. They lose out to places like South Dakota and Texas. But mostly, small and mid-sized producers are overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and now spend significant portions of their budgets on environmental and federal land experts, they say.

Environmental advocates, however, immediately pushed back on Pruitt’s decision. Eliminating the information request makes it difficult to know what oil and gas producers are emitting and set an early precedent of favoring industry over the environment from the new head of the EPA, they say.

Chris Merrill, of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, called Pruitt’s decision a shame.

“All we’re talking about here is information. Data,” Merrill said in an email. “The EPA’s original requirements would have armed citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions. This reversal under the Trump administration will only rob us of vital information that would have helped us protect our communities.”

Pruitt called the move “a step,” but so did Merrill.

“It’s a step in exactly the wrong direction,” he said.

Jon Goldstein, a senior policy adviser for the Environmental Defense Fund, has advocated in favor of stronger emissions standards for years in Wyoming, particular in the wake of serious air quality concerns in the Upper Green River Basin. He said he was concerned about Pruitt’s close ties with industry.

“What the administrator seems to be doing here is shielding oil and gas companies from being more transparent about the waste and pollution problem that their operations pose to communities and to states like Wyoming,” he said.

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The EPA already developed rules on new and modified sources of emissions, which many say mimic Wyoming’s rules. The information request was directed at existing wells and facilities.

However, the EPA is not the only federal agency looking at methane leaks.

It has been the BLM’s rule, which took effect in January, that has garnered the most attention nationwide, the most support from environmental advocates and the strongest opposition from industry.

Opponents say only the EPA has the right to regulate air quality.

“The BLM jumped ahead of the EPA, rolling out methane rules before the EPA even had a chance,” said John Robitaille, a critic of the BLM rule and vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

As for the EPA, it appears to be taking its rules straight from Wyoming’s playbook, proving that states are best poised to regulate their own industries, he said.

It’s been a common refrain from those who oppose the BLM’s rule, which is right now awaiting the Senate’s vote on whether Congress will strike it down.

Others have championed the BLM rule as a way to protect saleable resources like methane on public land while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As for Wyoming’s rules being repeated by the feds, Goldstein, the policy adviser, said that was true, but only in some areas. Most of the new production growth in Wyoming has been in Laramie, Campbell and Converse counties, where Wyoming air quality restrictions are less stringent, he said.

What Thursday’s decision means for the future of methane regulations on federal land is hard to predict, watchers say.

Those who want more regulations are worried.

“It’s a part of this pattern that instead of doing things that are smart to reduce these forms of pollution, they are running in the other direction,” Goldstein said.

Many in the oil and gas business see Thursday’s withdrawal of the survey as a positive for their sector but have no crystal ball for the future.

“I don’t know for sure. I would perhaps make that leap that they are not going forward for that existing source rule-making,” mused Robitaille. “There is too much going on in Washington. It just seems to be kind of a mess out there right now. Ultimately, all I know at this point is this information collection request has been stopped. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that will lead to. I just don’t know.”

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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