Pumpjacks are seen in a field near Lovington, New Mexico, April 24, 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to roll back requirements on detecting and plugging methane leaks at oil and gas facilities.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. is set Thursday to curtail its regulation of methane emissions, easing standards for what scientists say is a major contributor to climate change.

Sources familiar with the rule-making say the administration of President Donald Trump plans to eliminate the requirement that the oil and natural gas industry use technology to inspect for and repair methane leaks from wells and transmission equipment, including pipelines and storage facilities.   

The regulatory cutback is the latest in a string of reductions in environmental restrictions that were imposed under former President Barack Obama, as Trump officials look to make government less intrusive and more business friendly.

Trump officials say the methane emissions cutback is expected to save the energy industry between $17 million and $19 million a year. But the officials said they believe the industry already has the incentive to capture as much methane as possible from leaking into the atmosphere because it then has more gas to sell.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the oil and gas industry to be the country's primary source of methane emissions, a component of natural gas considered to be a bigger contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide, although it occurs in smaller volumes.

However, some of the biggest fossil fuel companies — Exxon, Shell and BP — are opposed to the looser regulations being offered by EPA, just as some of the world's largest car manufacturers recently objected to the Trump administration's plans to ease standards for fuel efficiency.

Shell president Gretchen Watkins renewed the company's support for tougher standards on methane release, pledging to reduce its methane leaks from its global operations to less than 0.2 percent by 2025.

“We believe sound environmental policies are foundational to the vital role natural gas can play in the energy transition and have made clear our support of 2016 law to regulate methane from new and modified onshore sources,” she said. “Despite the administration’s proposal to no longer regulate methane, Shell’s U.S. assets will continue to contribute to that global target.”

Environmentalists condemned the rollback in methane regulations.

Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, said, “This reckless rollback highlights the Trump administration’s complete contempt for our climate. The EPA is now so determined to actually increase greenhouse pollution that it’s even shrugging off concerns from oil and gas companies about gutting these protections."

The new EPA methane rules are subject to public review, but could be finalized early next year.