Science and Economics Agree: The Time is Right for California to Get Serious About Methane Pollution

Larissa-Koehler-200x300Recent numbers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show that methane (CH4) is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) in contributing to climate change over the first 20 years after it is released. Short-lived climate pollutants, like methane, are a large factor in determining how fast our climate will change over the next few decades.

These figures are particularly relevant in California where natural gas (which is about 99.9% methane) is used throughout the economy. For example, natural gas generates much of the state’s electricity through gas-fired power plants, is extensively used for home heating and cooking, and is increasingly being deployed as an alternative fuel for the state’s cars and trucks.

Yet, while California continues to operate and further build out a natural gas backbone in its energy economy, venting and leakage of uncombusted natural gas from pipes and machines can have an environmental impact. In fact, research shows that keeping methane leakage down to a minimum level is the only way to guarantee that the use of natural gas will provide immediate climate benefits, when switching from petroleum products.

One of the challenges associated with minimizing methane pollution from energy sector sources is that, across the lifecycle – from extraction, to processing, to transmission, and consumer use – there are millions of potential leak points. In fact, California has over 54,000 oil and gas wells, with over 7.7 million components capable of leaking methane to the environment. Adding to that, California has over 10,000 miles of high pressure natural gas transmission pipes and over 100,000 miles of utility distribution system pipes. With all the potential leak points across the state’s energy system, it is critical to pinpoint the most cost-effective ways of identifying and repairing methane leaks.

Thankfully, reducing emissions is not prohibitively expensive.

Further, state and national institutions are engaging in major research to identify the sources, and magnitude of the leaks in California and elsewhere. Similarly, EDF has partnered with nearly 100 academic and business experts to better quantify methane emissions, resulting in over a dozen studies expected to be published in 2014. Ultimately, EDF and others are working to identify the best opportunities for emission reductions in the natural gas supply chain and to help guide national efforts to implement reductions as quickly as possible.

Right here in California, we’re looking to implement a series of “no-regrets” efforts this year to make sure methane stays in the pipes and reaches customers – as opposed to leaking into the air.

These efforts involve several components of the natural gas supply chain:

Production – taking natural gas and oil out of the ground

California has lagged behind states like Colorado and Wyoming that have already begun to develop and adopt regulations requiring leak reductions. But this year, CARB has committed to rules that reduce the leaks of methane from the use of field equipment and oil and gas recovery practices. In some areas, these new tenets will likely work alongside already-existing local regulations that require leak detection and repair.

Transmission system – pipes that move highly pressurized natural gas across the state

In the AB 32 Scoping Plan, CARB has pledged to pursue a new regulation to require improved leak detection and repair in transmission pipes throughout the state.

Utility distribution system – pipes that brings natural gas to homes and businesses

Following the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion and Senate Bill 705 (Leno), the California Public Utilities Commission is updating its rules and authorizing utilities to spend billions of dollars on system maintenance and upgrades in 2014. Similarly, there is at least one new legislative bill proposed to further limit methane leaks from the distribution system.

By working alongside states like Colorado and Wyoming that are leading the way, California can develop and adopt policies that cut methane pollution in a cost-effective manner.

This can be a win-win for our pocketbooks and the climate: natural gas leaks cost companies money through less delivered product, and are a major contributor to the rate at which our climate will change over the next couple of decades. Together, California’s 2014 initiatives to reduce methane pollution close an important gap in the state’s comprehensive strategy to combat climate change and represent an important step forward for the state’s economy and environment.

This commentary originally appeared on our California Dream 2.0 blog.

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