California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is going into the air from within its borders. California has stricter limits on climate pollution than any other state.
The state has also been a major oil and gas producer for more than a century, and authorities are well aware some 35,000 old, inactive oil and gas wells perforate the landscape. Officials with the agency that regulates greenhouse gas emissions claim they do not include methane from idle wells in the inventory.
Ira Leifer, a University of California Santa Barbara scientist said the lack of data on emissions pouring or seeping out of idle wells calls into question the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.
Residents and environmentalists from across the state have been voicing concern about the possibility of leaking idle or abandoned wells for years, but the concerns were heightened in May and June when 21 idle wells were discovered to be leaking methane in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say that the leaking wells are “an urgent public health issue,” because when a well is leaking methane, other gases often escape too.
Leifer stated that these “ridealong” gases are his greatest concern about the wells.
” These other gases can have serious health effects,” Leifer stated, but we don’t know as much about them than about methane.
Residents who lived near leaking wells in California protested the California Geologic Management Division field offices. They demanded better supervision.
” It is clear they will ignore the public health crisis. Our communities are done waiting. CalGEM must do its job,” Cesar Arguirre (a Central California Environmental Justice Network community organizer) stated in a statement.
Robert Howarth from Cornell University, said that methane from well leaks was not well-known and is not an important source.
Still, he said, “it’s adding something very clearly, and we shouldn’t be allowing it to happen.”
A ton of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide, when compared over 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 at the major oil and gas fields throughout the state.
Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author on that 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 spokesperson for CARB, said the agency is beginning a project to measure emissions from a sample of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate statewide emissions from them.
And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participation in a global effort to slash emissions called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to track large methane leaks in order to help the state identify sources of the gas and cap leaks.
Some research has already been done, too, to find out how much methane is coming from oil and gas facilities. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of state methane emissions is coming from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press found methane is billowing from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas and companies under report it.
Howarth stated that even though methane is not a significant source of pollution, the issue should be addressed nationwide to ensure compliance with climate commitments.
“Methane dissipates pretty quickly in the atmosphere,” he said, “so cutting the emissions is really one of the simplest ways we have to slow the rate of global warming and meet that Paris target.”
A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions 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 Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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