Methane emissions: the weak link in California’s climate plan

By Andy Wunder, Policy Intern, US Climate and Energy Program

Nearly seven years ago, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a 5-year plan to reduce climate pollution in the state. In this 2008 Scoping Plan, measures were outlined reflecting the need to cut methane pollution from oil and gas operations. Though CARB has demonstrated commitment to addressing this urgent issue the need to take action as soon as possible is becoming increasingly clear.

Source: Wikipedia/Makaristos

The Value of Action

Addressing methane emissions is critical. Oil and natural gas production continues to expand rapidly in the United States – and with it the potential for climate-destabilizing methane emissions. Unburned natural gas is primarily methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests over the first twenty years after it is released into the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in trapping heat at the Earth’s surface. Methane leaks across the entire natural gas supply chain–from extraction to distribution—and these leaks represent a significant threat to our climate.

New evidence — like that documented in a recent report by independent energy consulting firm ICF International—shows industry can eliminate 40 percent of methane leakage in the next five years by implementing existing technologies already on the market today. With more than 54,000 oil and gas wells to its name, this is extremely valuable in both an environmental and economic sense for California. In addition, companies won’t have to pay a hefty price for such methane reduction measures: they can do it for less than one penny per 1000 cubic feet of produced natural gas— or less than a penny spent for roughly every $4-5 earned. Reducing methane emissions not only has a climate benefit, it benefits industry and consumers by eliminating waste of a natural resource and by keeping a valuable commodity in the pipeline.

Moving Forward

In terms of next steps, California should continue its reputation as an environmental champion by following the lead of state and federal efforts to reduce methane emissions. States like Colorado, Wyoming and Ohio have all moved forward with new regulations to reduce harmful air emissions from the oil and gas industry. And, earlier this year, the White House released a national methane reduction strategy as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan. Further, the EPA is expected to make a decision later this year on whether to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Like these other jurisdictions, CARB can and should be moving forward with deliberate speed to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Furthermore, as shown by ICF and others, some commonsense approaches rise to the top:

1)      Eliminate wasteful, deliberate emissions: Methane is often purposefully vented or flared into the atmosphere during the completion of wells and at other points along the supply chain. These emissions are wasteful and unnecessary since existing technologies and practices are well developed to enable capturing of gas to be put to beneficial reuse. These “Green completions” technologies deliver returns to the industry’s bottom line and should be a leading practice for oil and gas well operators.

2)      Address fugitive emissions:  Unintentional leakage can occur from any one of the millions of pieces of equipment in California’s oil and gas fields – equipment that, if not properly inspected and maintained, can significantly reduce the climate benefit we stand to gain by switching from coal to natural gas. By requiring sensible and frequent leak detection and repair (LDAR) policies, California can ensure that the extraction, production and distribution of natural gas is done efficiently, with minimal waste and climate damage.

3)      Establish technology standards: Antiquated pumping, compression and engine technology cannot be maintained to a standard that prevents emissions or operates in the most efficient way possible. California should apply emissions and performance standards to individual equipment categories to guarantee that industry implements the most technologically relevant equipment that will drive efficiency and reduce waste.

The Time Is Now

Successfully meeting California’s immediate, near-term and long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals relies on having comprehensive policies for multi-pollutant action. With immediate CARB leadership on methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, the state can address a critical missing piece in its climate change mitigation strategy. Now is the time to take real action on methane pollution.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    This is a valid set of observations. However, there is one important area where the burden is actually on the US EPA and local air districts: current regulations do not allow oil and gas producers to switch from flaring or emission releases to lower emitting uses unless those lower emitting uses are below the permitting thresholds. For example, an oil producer cannot switch from a flare emitting 100 ppm at current permit limits to an engine that emits 15 ppm because the engine doesn't get down to 9 ppm. There is no allowance for relative gains in the current regulations and that is inhibiting what could be huge emission gains.