California doesn’t count methane leaks from unused wells

AP Science Writer

California claims to know the amount of climate-warming gas in 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 more than a century, and authorities are well aware that some 35,000 old idle oil and gas wells puncture the landscape.

Yet officials at the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they do not include the methane that leaks from these unused wells in their inventory of state emissions.

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

Residents and environmentalists across the state worry about the possibility of leaks from wells that have been unused or abandoned for years, but concerns were heightened in May and June when 21 unused wells were found to be leaking methane. in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say leaky wells are “an urgent public health concern” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often leak out as well.

Leifer said these “overlapping” gases were his biggest concern with the wells.

“These other gases have important health impacts,” Leifer said, but we know even less about their quantities than about methane.

In July, residents who live in the communities closest to the leaking wells protested outside the California Geologic Management Division field offices, calling for better monitoring.

“It is clear that they are prepared to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are done 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, agreed with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaking wells is not well known and is not a major source. emissions compared to methane emissions from the entire oil and gas industry.

Still, he said, “it adds something very clearly, and we shouldn’t allow that to happen.”

A ton of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide, compared over twenty years.

A 2020 study said emissions from inactive wells are “greater” than those from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection from inactive wells at major oil and gas fields in the state .

Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climatologist and co-author of the study, said he found high emissions from some of the unused sinks measured in the study.

In order to get a better idea of ​​how much methane is escaping, the State of California is investing in ground and airborne projects. CARB spokesman David Clegern said the agency is beginning a project to measure emissions from a sample of correctly and incorrectly abandoned wells to estimate statewide emissions.

And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participating in a global emissions reduction effort called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million to use satellites to track large methane leaks to help the state identify sources of gas leaks and clogs.

Some research has also already been done to determine the amount of methane from oil and gas facilities. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of the state’s methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new Associated Press investigation has found methane is leaking from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin in Texas and companies are reporting it.

Howarth said that while methane from idle oil and gas wells isn’t 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 through the atmosphere quite quickly,” he said, “so reducing emissions is really one of the easiest ways we have to slow the rate of global warming and achieve that goal. from Paris.”

A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce their pollution, especially in hard-hit communities.


Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.