California claims to know how much greenhouse gas enters the air from 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 the authorities are well aware that around 35,000 old, inactive oil and gas wells perforate the landscape.
Still, officials with the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they don’t include methane leaking from these idle wells in their inventory of the state’s emissions.
Ira Leifer, a scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the lack of data on emissions flowing or seeping out of idle wells calls into question the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045.
Residents and environmentalists from across the state have raised concerns about the possibility of leaking idle or abandoned wells for years, but concerns were heightened in May and June when 21 idle wells were discovered to be leaking methane in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods. They say the leaking wells are “an urgent public health problem” because when a well leaks methane, other gases often escape as well.
Leifer said these “ridealong” gases were his biggest concern for the wells.
“These other gases have significant health effects,” 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 Geologic Management Division’s field offices, calling for better oversight.
“It’s clear they are willing to ignore this public health crisis. 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 major source of emissions compared to methane emissions from the entire oil and gas industry.
Still, he said, “it adds something very obvious, and we shouldn’t allow that to happen.”
A tonne of methane is 83 times worse for the climate than a tonne of carbon dioxide, compared over twenty years.
A 2020 study said emissions from idle wells are “more significant” than from plugged wells in California, but recommended more data collection on idle wells at the major oil and gas fields across the state.
Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author of that study, said they found high emissions from some of the vacant wells they measured in the study.
To get a better idea of how much methane is leaking, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a CARB spokesman, said the agency is starting a project to measure emissions from a sample of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate statewide emissions from them.
And in June, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a budget that includes participation in a global effort to cut 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 sources of the gas and cap leaks.
A lot of research has already been done to find out how much methane comes from oil and gas plants. A nature study from 2019 found that 26% of the state’s methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press found that methane is surging from oil and gas equipment in the Permian Basin of Texas and companies that report it.
Howarth said that while methane from idle oil and gas wells is not a major source of pollution, it should be a priority not just in California, but nationwide, to help the country meet its climate pledges.
“Methane disappears pretty quickly in the atmosphere,” he said, “so cutting emissions is really one of the easiest ways we have to slow global warming and meet that Paris goal.”
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 Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.