The Environmental Protection Agency is inviting the oil and gas industry to participate in a voluntary program to reduce emissions as part of its climate change strategy, but both the industry and environmentalists are wary of the invitation.

The EPA announced the voluntary "challenge" quietly on Thursday, inviting members of the oil and gas industry to participate in a program to see how much they can reduce their methane emissions.

The industry expects EPA to issue new regulations that would enforce methane reductions later this year and is advising voluntary action instead of strict regulations.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that most scientists say is linked to manmade global warming. Reducing greenhouse gases is part of President Obama's agenda to confront the threat of climate change and reduce global warming.

EPA's methane challenge is an update to the Natural Gas Star program, which the oil and gas industry has participated in for years to develop environmentally sustainable drilling practices. The program has come into focus with the increased use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract gas from shale deposits.

"The Methane Challenge Program is an integral part of the EPA's — and the administration's — ongoing commitment to address methane emissions and global climate change," the agency said in a document about the proposed framework.

Nevertheless, the document says the new challenge will be a departure from the older program. It will require more data to be submitted by the industry, well beyond what was required under the original Gas Star program. The program also would require more ambitious goal-setting and updates, supported by data, to show progress on eliminating methane emissions. The older program was not as rigorous.

The American Petroleum Institute, representing major oil companies, says it will look at the proposal and participate if the incentives are adequate.

The group's lead environmental and regulatory adviser, Howard Feldman, said the industry has already reduced methane emissions as a matter of good business practice, which the EPA should take into consideration as it looks to reduce emissions.

"Voluntary programs are the best way to reduce methane emissions from existing sources," Feldman emphasized. "Industry is already incentivized to best determine how to cost-effectively reduce emissions and will consider participation in a voluntary program, provided it has the necessary flexibility and incentives."

But new regulations would not be a good idea, he says. "Additional regulations on methane by EPA and other agencies could have a chilling effect on the American energy renaissance, our economy and our progress reducing emissions."

Meanwhile, environmental groups that support new regulations are advising the administration not to entertain a voluntary path toward emission reductions, and that regulation is the only way.

David Doniger, climate change adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned in a blog Thursday morning, ahead of the EPA's announcement, that the agency cannot rely on the industry to police itself.

"Not surprisingly, industry would have you believe regulations are not necessary — that companies will voluntarily do this on their own," Doniger said. "We don't buy it.

"Experience shows us that the oil and gas industry rarely — if ever — takes steps to improve their environmental footprint out of the goodness of their hearts," Doniger said. "And indeed, if voluntary measures work, why haven't they done so yet? The technology is already cost-effective and readily available."

Doniger said his group is planning to step up the pressure to see that regulations are developed for new and existing sources of methane from natural gas facilities.

Earlier this year, the White House announced a goal to cut methane emissions from the sector by 40-45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.