California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is moving into the air from within its borders. Here’s the law: California limits climate pollution and the limits get tighter every year.
The state has been a major oil and gas producer for more than a century, and officials are well aware that some 35,000 old, dormant oil and gas wells punctuate the landscape.
Yet officials at the agency that regulates greenhouse gas emissions say they do not include the methane that leaks from these idle wells on the state’s list of emissions.
University of California Santa Barbara scientist Ira Leifer said the lack of data on emissions or seepage from dormant wells raises questions about the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.
Residents and environmentalists across the state have been expressing concern for years about the potential for leaking waste or abandoned wells, but concerns escalated in May and June when 21 idle wells leaked methane in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. Found out. They say leaking wells are “an urgent public health issue”, because when methane leaks from a well, other gases often escape as well.
Leifer said these “ridelong” gases were his biggest concern with wells.
“Those other gases have significant health effects,” Leifer said, yet we know less about methane than they do.
In July, residents living in communities close to leaky wells protested at the California Geological Management Division’s regional offices, calling for better inspections.
“It is clear that they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are waiting. CalGEM needs to do its job,” Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement.
Methane researcher Robert Howarth of Cornell University agreed with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaky wells is not well known and is not a major source of emissions compared to methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
Still, he said, “it’s very clearly adding something, and we shouldn’t let that happen.”
Over twenty years a ton of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide.
A 2020 study says emissions from inactive wells are “more substantial” than from plugged wells in California, but recommends more data collection on idle wells in major oil and gas fields across the state.
Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author of that study, said he found higher emissions from some of the inactive wells measured in the study.
To get a better idea of how much methane is leaking out, the state of California is investing in projects on land and in the air. David Clegern, a spokesman for CARB, said the agency is launching a project to measure emissions from samples of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate emissions statewide.
And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed off on a budget that includes participation in a global effort to reduce emissions called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to track large methane leaks to help the state identify the sources of gas and cap leaks.
Some research has also been done to find out how much methane is coming from oil and gas facilities. The 2019 Nature Study found that 26% of state methane emissions are coming from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press found that oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas is releasing methane and companies are reporting it.
Howarth said that even though methane from dormant oil and gas wells is not a major pollution source, it should be a priority not only in California, but across the country, to help the country deliver on its climate promises.
“Methane dissipates into the atmosphere very quickly,” he said, “so cutting emissions is one of the simplest ways to actually slow the rate of global warming and meet the Paris target.”
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 Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.