Year two of the California legislative cycle usually yields some bold policy ideas – and this year it looks like rethinking California’s relationship with methane and natural gas is on track to do just that.
Given the fresh memories of the major methane pollution event at Aliso Canyon, the 20-plus bills introduced on the topic this legislative session – vastly more than in past years – aren’t surprising in the least. Moreover, 2016 could have a monumental effect on the methane and natural gas picture in the state for years to come.
What is responsible for this sudden increase in efforts to change California’s relationship with methane and natural gas.
The science is clear
First, the science is clear, as methane, the primary component of natural gas, is responsible for about 25% of the manmade climate change we’re experiencing today. With temperature records being broken nearly daily (2015 was the hottest year on record, and February 2016 was the hottest month ever globally), the cat is out of the bag – it’s past time to focus on methane.
The legislative pump is primed
California started down the path of finding solutions to address methane emissions years ago with a series of bills and policy actions, and in many ways the 2016 bill package doubles down on that progress.
More recent legislative efforts to understand and tackle the environmental impacts of methane include SB 1371 (Leno, 2014) requiring utilities to minimize emissions from the natural gas transmission and distribution system, and SB 605 (Lara, 2014) requiring a strategy to reduce all short-lived climate pollutants and others.
The Aliso Canyon incident broke the dam
If California wasn’t already going to act in 2016, the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility leak, one of the largest natural gas leaks ever recorded, was certainly the water that broke the dam of legislative action.
Occurring just on the outskirts of California’s largest city, and awakening people to the 400 facilities across the nation that store natural gas, Aliso Canyon directly impacted thousands of California families – Democrats and Republicans alike. The event has shed light on the state’s overreliance on natural gas as a fuel source and the continuing trend of approving more natural gas power plants without the infrastructure capable of reliably delivering it all, leading to potential blackouts in Southern California this summer.
2016 may by the biggest year yet for methane and natural gas in California
Perhaps the best way to think holistically about the 20-plus bills related to methane and natural gas that the California legislature is considering is through a two-part approach of parallel action: stopping the environmental pollution from the system California has now, while at the same time working to transition to a cleaner and more diversified system.
Cleaning up the current system
As shown by the science, vast amount of methane pollution is coming from current oil and gas infrastructure, and it’s clear that action is needed. In this vein, at least seven bills in Sacramento have risen to the top.
To chart new long term goals, SB 1383 (Lara, Los Angeles) proposes to codify the state’s methane pollution goals, including cutting oil and gas sector methane pollution by 40% below 2013 levels by the year 2030, while also making major efforts to reduce agricultural methane, black carbon, and refrigerant pollution.
For continued progress in leak reduction, SB 1441 (Leno, San Francisco) proposes to prevent California utilities from collecting money from ratepayers for natural gas they leak, either accidentally or intentionally. The bill also addresses leakage associated with the 90 percent of gas California imports, directing the state to examine where imported natural gas comes from and to develop solutions that reduce methane leakage associated with the gas California uses, but which leaks before it arrives.
In the area of energy production, AB 2729 and AB 2756 (Williams, Santa Barbara and Thurmond, Richmond) would fundamentally change the way California manages the tens of thousands of old, idled, and abandoned oil and gas wells that checker the state’s landscape. As a recent study found, leaks from idled, orphan and abandoned wells can be a significant source of potent methane emissions –in addition to posing problems for groundwater and public safety.
As a response to Aliso Canyon, a host of bills have emerged. SB 380 and SB 887 (Pavley, Agoura Hills) would prevent the Aliso Canyon storage facility from reopening until it’s been proven to be safe, and require new rules be developed for all the state’s gas storage fields. Additionally, AB 1905 (Wilk, Porter Ranch) proposes independent scientific assessments of injection and storage practices in California.
Envisioning the future of energy in California
In addition to measures to stop current pollution, the state legislature is also reconsidering the role that natural gas plays in California with a slew of bills seeking to alter California’s energy system, decarbonize natural gas, reduce the pollution burden in impacted neighborhoods, and help ensure the state reaches its clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals.
To reduce air pollution from new natural gas power plants, particularly in sensitive communities, AB 1937 (Gomez, Los Angeles) proposes that before authorizing new gas facilities, the California Energy Commission must assess the capacity of alternative sources to meet demand. If alternatives can do the job, the California Energy Commission will have the authority to refuse the certification of a new gas plant and favor cleaner solutions like energy efficiency and demand response. The bill will also make sure that environmental burdens already present in communities are taken into account, and broaden the existing renewable portfolio standard to direct renewable resources to those communities.
SB 1453 (Pro Tem De Leon, Los Angeles) also aims to clean up power generation by changing the ability of electrical corporations to recover capital expenditures for baseload natural gas plants – essentially moving away from natural gas generation that doesn’t meet greenhouse gas performance standards.
And in the area of making new sources of lower carbon gas, four bills seek to improve incentives and remove barriers to renewable natural gas. AB 2206 and AB 2313 (Williams, Santa Barbara) would require the study of bio-methane issues and increase incentives for renewable natural gas projects, SB 1153 (Cannella, Merced) would require an update to state climate plans to encourage development of in-state bio-methane, and SB 1043 (Allen, Los Angeles) would require new policies to significantly increase the sustainable production of renewable natural gas.
Reducing reliance on natural gas
These bills and other legislative efforts highlight the complexities presented by the state’s natural gas system.
In the wake of Aliso Canyon and increasing impacts of methane leaks on climate change, we know the status quo methane leak and gas overreliance story is not sustainable – but must be considered against the backdrop of the massive system in place. Through all this, one thing is clear, California must continue its history of leadership, and push forward to create a safer, more reliable, and cleaner energy system.
Image source: Shelly, Sketchpost