California without counting the methane leaks from inactive wells

California without counting the methane leaks from inactive wells

California without counting the methane leaks from inactive wells

California says it knows how much climate-warming gas is pumped into the air from within its borders. It’s the law: California limits climate pollution and every year the limits get stricter.

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

However, officials from the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they do not include the methane leaking from these dormant wells in their state emissions inventory.

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

Residents and conservationists across the state have expressed concern about the possibility of leaks from inactive or abandoned wells for years, but concerns increased in May and June when 21 inactive wells were found to be leaking methane in or near two neighborhoods. by Bakersfield. They say leaking wells are “an urgent public health problem,” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often escape as well.

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

“These other gases have a significant impact on health,” Leifer said, but we know even less of their quantities than methane.

In July, residents living in communities closest to leaking wells protested at the California Geological Management Division’s field offices, calling for better supervision.

“It is clear that they are willing to ignore this health emergency. Our communities have finished 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, agrees with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaking wells is not well known and that it is not a major source of emissions compared to methane emissions from industry. oil and gas.

However, he said, “it’s adding something very clearly and we shouldn’t let that 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 inactive wells are “more substantial” than from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection on inactive wells at major oil and gas fields across the state.

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

To get a better idea of ​​how much methane it is losing, the state of California is investing in ground and air projects. David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB, said the agency is starting a project to measure emissions from a sample of abandoned wells correctly and improperly to estimate statewide emissions from them.

And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participating 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 gas sources and plug leaks.

Some research has also already been done to find out how much methane comes from oil and gas plants. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of the state’s methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new Associated Press investigation found methane leaking from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas and companies are reporting this.

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

“Methane dissipates pretty quickly in the atmosphere,” he said, “so cutting emissions is really one of the simplest ways to slow the rate of global warming and reach the Paris target.”

A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce pollution, 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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