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 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, inactive oil and gas wells pierce the landscape.
But officials with the agency responsible for regulating greenhouse gas emissions say they don’t include methane escaping from these disused wells in their inventory of state emissions.
Ira Leifer, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the lack of data on emissions pouring or seeping from unused wells questions the state’s ability to meet its ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045 reach.
Residents and environmentalists from across the state have raised concerns about the possibility of leaking disused or abandoned wells for years, but concern was heightened in May and June when it was discovered that 21 disused wells in or near two Bakersfield neighborhoods methane escape. They say the leaking wells are “an urgent public health concern” because when methane escapes from a well, other gases often escape as well.
Leifer said these “ride-along” gases are his biggest concern with the wells.
“These other gases have significant health effects,” Leifer said, but we know even less about their levels than we do about the methane.
In July, residents living in the communities closest to the leaking wells protested outside the California Geologic Management Division field offices, demanding better oversight.
“It is clear that they are willing to ignore this public health emergency. Our communities are tired of waiting. CalGEM needs to do its job,” Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said in a statement.
Robert Howarth, a Cornell University methane researcher, agreed with Leifer that the amount of methane emissions from leaking wells is not well known and that it is not a large source of emissions compared to methane emissions from the oil and gas industry as a whole.
Still, he said, “It adds something very clear, and we shouldn’t let it happen.”
A ton of methane is 83 times more harmful to the climate than a ton of carbon dioxide when compared over twenty years.
A 2020 study says emissions from idle wells are “more significant” than plugged-up wells in California, but recommended collecting more data on idle wells in major oil and gas fields across the state.
Robert Jackson, a Stanford University climate scientist and co-author of this study, said they found high emissions from some of the abandoned wells they measured in the study.
In order to better estimate how much methane is escaping, the state of California is investing in projects on the ground and in the air. David Clegern, a spokesman for CARB, said the agency is beginning a project to measure emissions from a sample of properly and improperly abandoned wells to estimate national emissions from them.
And in June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget to participate in a global effort to cut emissions called the Methane Accountability Project. The state will spend $100 million tracking large methane leaks using satellites to help the state identify sources of the gas and plug leaks.
Some research has also been done to find out how much methane comes from oil and gas plants. A 2019 study by Nature found that 26% of state methane emissions come from oil and gas. A new investigation by the Associated Press found methane leaking from oil and gas facilities in Texas’ Permian Basin and companies reporting on it.
Howarth said 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 nationwide to help the country meet its climate promises.
“Methane dissolves in the atmosphere pretty quickly,” he said, “so reducing emissions is really one of the easiest ways to slow the rate of global warming and meet the Paris target.”
A new Senate proposal would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to plug wells and reduce pollution from them, particularly 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.