California just put serious limits on methane leaks

Things aren’t good at the federal level, but progress on methane leaks march forward.

Methane can be released from both oil and natural gas wells. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel
Methane can be released from both oil and natural gas wells. CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

The California Air Resources Board voted unanimously on Thursday to enact regulations that will curb the amount of methane the oil and gas industry can leak and vent during production and storage.

The new rule — years in the making — requires oil and gas companies to monitor infrastructure and repair leaks. It is a massive step forward for California’s air quality programs, advocates say, and it is the strictest in the nation.

The Air Resources Board expects the new rule will reduce methane leaks by 45 percent over the next nine years.

The oil and gas industry contributes about a third of the United States’ overall methane emissions. Not only is methane a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 20-year span, but leaking and flaring natural gas also adds benzene (a carcinogen) and NOx compounds (which create ground-level ozone) into the air we breathe.


Still, the environmental dangers of leaking methane haven’t stopped Congress or Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from taking steps this year to reduce accountability from the oil and gas industry. In February, the House passed a Congressional Review Act to rescind a Bureau of Land Management rule that required oil and gas operators on public lands to limit their methane leaks and flaring.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who opposed the methane rule in his previous role as Oklahoma attorney general, has also rescinded a request for information from oil and gas operations that would have been used for the EPA to develop rules that could have applied to existing infrastructure.

“As the federal government steps back, it is going to be tremendously important for states to take the lead,” said Tim O’Connor, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s California oil and gas program. “Nationally, oil and gas is the single largest source of methane out there.”

A study from the California Air Resources Board released in February found naturally occurring (but usually underground) benzene is released at half the state’s natural gas leaks. Flaring — the process of burning off gas, rather than capturing and processing it — adds ground-level ozone, diminishing air quality in the surrounding areas.

The study “really demonstrates the need and value” of passing California’s new rule, “for reducing economic waste and climate pollution — but also for protecting public health,” O’Connor said. Other studies from around the country have found a link between fracking for oil and gas and negative, localized health impacts.


There is also an economic component to the rule. In California alone, more than $50 million worth of natural gas each year is wasted, O’Connor said. Annually, some 75,000 tons of methane are released by leaky equipment and intentional venting.

If Congress follows through with repealing the BLM rule, it is expected to cost taxpayers, who receive revenue for natural gas development on public land, $800 million over the next 10 years. The value of the lost gas is projected to be roughly $330 million annually — and the rule only applied to new oil and gas development.

Meanwhile, California is not the only state taking action against leaky natural gas infrastructure. Colorado, whose regulations were the basis for the BLM rule, put limits on methane emissions in place back in 2014. Earlier this year, Ohio took steps to limit methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, and there is an ongoing rule-making process in Pennsylvania to do the same. The California PUC will also likely take steps later this year to regulate leaks from natural gas transmission lines, which are another significant and dangerous source of methane.

O’Connor pointed out, though, that despite California’s comprehensive set of rules, 90 percent of the state’s natural gas is imported from other states. “Even if we get our gas production [leaks] down to zero, we still have a significant footprint,” he said.

Ironically, studies have found that trapping otherwise lost gas is a net benefit for producers. It would cost less for oil and gas developers to fix the leaks than they lose when the gas disappears into thin air — but it takes investment.


That investment is often in the form of jobs, inspectors, repairmen, and the like, which is one reason that there is broad support for limiting natural gas leaks and venting. According to recent polling, 73 percent of voters want the federal government to require companies to reduce gas leaks. Another 61 percent support laws that minimize wasteful practices like venting and flaring of natural gas.

Meanwhile, the problem might be even worse than estimated. This month, another report found that refineries and power plants are leaking a whole lot more natural gas than the industry is reporting. Natural gas leaks are 21 to 120 times larger than reported at power plants and 11 to 90 times larger at refineries, according to the the study, released earlier this month by Purdue University and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Natural gas, which is 80 percent methane, has been touted as a bridge to clean energy, because burning natural gas is roughly half as carbon intensive as coal combustion. But, due to methane’s outsized impact on climate change, if the industry leaks more than 3 percent of the natural gas used for electricity, the methane cancels out any climate benefit.

“It’s a better fuel all around as long as you don’t spill it,” Paul Shepson, Purdue’s Jonathan Amy Distinguished Professor of Analytical and Atmospheric Chemistry, said in a statement. “But it doesn’t take much methane leakage to ruin your whole day if you care about climate change.”

Because of discrepancies in industry reporting, it’s hard to estimate exactly how much natural gas is leaking. The rates Shepson and colleagues found were “significantly higher” than estimates done with industry data and reported by the EPA in 2014. In fact, studies have repeatedly found that the oil and natural gas industry — from fracking to transportation and storage to production and combustion — leaks far more than it reports.

“It would be informative to gather more data,” Shepson told ThinkProgress via email.

Of course, even if it weren’t leaking at all, the boom in natural gas production would still be concerning. The natural gas boom has been lauded as a way to transition the country to a clean energy economy. Natural gas, when burned, emits a little over half as much carbon dioxide as coal, the primary source of electricity in the United States.

That benefit, though, disappears when as little as 3 percent of natural gas leaks during the fossil fuel’s lifecycle.

And even the best case, slowing catastrophic climate change — while better than flinging humanity headlong into it — does not actually prevent or avoid rising sea levels, intensified storms, or desertification.