California does not count methane leaks from idle wells

California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is entering the air from within its borders. It’s the law: California limits air pollution, and every year the limits get tighter.

The state has also been a major oil and gas producer for more than a century, and authorities are well aware that some 35,000 old, inactive oil and gas wells dot the landscape.

But officials at the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they don’t include methane leaking from these inactive wells in the state’s list of emissions.

Ira Leifer, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the lack of data on emissions spewing or leaking from idle wells calls into question the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.

Residents and environmentalists from across the state have expressed concern about the potential for leaking from idle or abandoned wells for years, but concerns intensified in May and June when 21 idle methane-leaking wells were discovered in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say leaking wells are “an urgent public health issue” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often escape.

Leifer said these “walking” gases were his biggest concern for the wells.

“These other gases have significant health effects,” Leifer said, yet we know even less about their amounts than we do about methane.

In July, residents living in the communities closest to the leaking wells protested at the offices of the California Geological Survey, demanding better oversight.

“It is clear that they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are done waiting. CalGEM needs to do its job,” Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement.

Robert Howarth, a methane researcher at Cornell University, agreed with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaking wells is not well known and that it is not a significant source of emissions compared to methane emissions from the entire oil and natural gas industry. gas.

However, he said, “it adds something very clearly and we should not allow that to happen.”

A ton of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide, compared to the last twenty years.

A 2020 study said emissions from idle wells are “more substantial” than from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection on inactive wells in major oil and gas fields across the state.

Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author of this study, said they found high emissions from some of the idle wells they measured in the study.

In order to get a better idea of ​​how much methane is leaking, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a CARB spokesman, said the agency is starting a project to measure emissions from a sample of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate emissions from them statewide.

And in June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes joining a global effort to reduce emissions called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to monitor large methane leaks to help the state identify the sources of the gas and cap leaks.

Some research has also already been done to determine how much methane comes from oil and gas facilities. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of the nation’s methane emissions come from oil and natural gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press has found that methane is gushing from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas, and the companies under investigation are reporting it.

Howarth said that even if methane from idle oil wells and natural gas is not a major source of pollution, it should be a priority not only in California, but nationally, to help the country meet its commitments to climate.

“Methane dissipates pretty quickly into the atmosphere,” he said, “so reducing emissions is really one of the simplest ways we have to slow the rate of global warming and meet that Paris goal.”

A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce pollution from them, especially in hard-hit communities.


Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


The Associated Press Health and Science Section is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Division. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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