California doesn’t count methane leaks from idle wells

California claims to know how much climate-warming gas is being released into the air within its borders. It’s the law: California limits climate pollution, and each year the limits get stricter.

The state has also been a major oil and gas producer for more than a century, and officials are well aware that some 35,000 old, idle oil and gas wells pierce the landscape.

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

Ira Leifer, a scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the lack of data on emissions being dumped or seeping from idle wells casts doubt on the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality. by 2045.

Residents and environmentalists across the state have been raising concerns 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 at or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say leaking wells are “an urgent public health issue” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often escape as well.

Leifer said that these “accompanying” gases were his biggest concern regarding the wells.

“Those other gases have significant health impacts,” Leifer said, but we know even less about their amounts than we do about methane.

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

“It is clear that they are willing 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 that it is not a significant source of emissions compared to methane emissions. of the entire oil and gas industry.

Still, 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, compared to twenty years.

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

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

To get a better idea of ​​how much methane is escaping, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a CARB spokesman, said the agency is beginning a project to measure emissions from a sample of abandoned wells right and wrong to estimate emissions from them statewide.

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

There has also been some research done to find out how much methane comes from oil and gas facilities. A 2019 Nature study found that 26% of state methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press has found that methane is leaking 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 across the country, to help the country meet its climate commitments.

“Methane dissipates pretty quickly in the atmosphere,” he said, “so reducing emissions is really one of the easiest ways we have to reduce the rate of global warming and meet the Paris goal.”

A new Senate proposal would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce their pollution, especially in the most affected 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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