California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is released into the air from within its borders. It’s the law: California limits climate 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 pierce the landscape.
But officials at the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they are not including methane leaking from these idle wells in their inventory of state emissions.
Ira Leifer, a scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the lack of data on emissions flowing or seeping from inactive wells casts doubt on the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. to achieve.
Residents and environmentalists across the state have for years raised concerns about the possibility of leaking inactive or abandoned wells, but concerns were heightened in May and June. when 21 inactive wells discovered methane leaks in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say the leaking wells are “an urgent public health problem” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often escape as well.
Leifer said these “ride-on” gases were his main concern with the wells.
“Those other gases have significant health implications,” Leifer said, but we know even less about their amounts than we do about the methane.
In July, residents living in the communities closest to the leaking wells protested at the field offices of the California Geologic Management Division, calling for greater surveillance.
“Clearly they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are done waiting. CalGEM must do their job,” Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement. .
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University methane researcher, 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 the methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
Still, he said, “it adds something very obvious, and we shouldn’t let it happen.”
A tonne of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a tonne of carbon dioxide in 20 years.
A 2020 study said emissions from idle wells are “substantial” than from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection on idle wells in the state’s major oil and gas fields.
Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author of that study, said they found high emissions from some of the inactive wells they measured in the study.
To better understand how much methane is leaking, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a spokesman 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 these sources.
And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participation in a global effort to reduce emissions, the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to detect major methane leaks to help the state identify the sources of the gas and doping sites.
Some research has also been done to find out how much methane comes from oil and gas installations. a 2019 Nature study found that 26% of the state’s methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press has found that methane is flowing from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas and companies are reporting it.
Howarth said that even if methane from idle oil and gas wells isn’t a major source of pollution, it should be a priority, not just in California, but nationwide, to help the country deliver on its climate promises.
“Methane disappears into the atmosphere quite quickly,” he said, “so cutting emissions is really one of the easiest ways to slow the pace of global warming and meet the Paris target.”
A new Senate proposal would yield hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce their pollution, especially in hard-hit communities.
New study debunks theory that Britain’s decommissioned wells are leaking methane
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