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UPDATE 3-Trump EPA proposes easing methane limits at oil and gas operations

Timothy Gardner

(Adds comment from EPA head Wheeler, adds details on EPA estimate of cost saving)

WASHINGTON, Aug 29 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Thursday proposed easing Obama-era limits on oil and gas industry emissions of methane, one of the main pollutants scientists link to climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said easing the 2016 regulation that targeted methane would save energy companies up to $123 million through 2025. The plan will undergo a period of public comment before being finalized, and environmental groups pledged court action to try to block repeal of the limits.

The proposal "removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a release.

The EPA said it will keep rules issued in 2012 that limit emissions known as volatile organic compounds that cause smog and also control some methane emissions.

Some large energy companies including BP favor federal regulation of methane, saying the regulatory certainty is preferable to a patchwork of varying rules by states and legal challenges by environmentalists. BP has said it is already taking steps to limit methane emissions.

The move is the Trump administration's latest easing of rules designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, including many put forth by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump, who insists he is an environmentalist, has also relaxed rules on carbon emissions from vehicles and intends to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.

Concern about climate has heightened in recent weeks amid fires in the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest and melting of ice in Greenland. Democrats seeking their party's nomination in the 2020 U.S. presidential election will participate in a series of town halls on climate next week.

In 2016, Obama's EPA issued the first rule limiting methane emissions from new oil and gas fracking operations including transport equipment. Thursday's proposal would repeal those regulations.

The oil and gas business is the largest single source of methane emissions, a major factor in global warming. The gas has more than 80 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it escapes into the atmosphere, scientists say.

Susan Dio, chairman and president of BP America, supported federal regulation of methane in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle earlier this year calling it the "the best way to help further reduce and ultimately eliminate methane emissions industrywide."

Environmentalists vowed to sue the administration over the proposal. "We simply cannot protect our children and grandchildren from climate catastrophe if EPA lets this industry off scot-free," said David Doniger, a climate and clean energy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If EPA moves forward with this reckless and sinister proposal, we will see them in court." (Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by David Gregorio)