What the newly proposed EPA methane rules mean for California

OIl and gasLast week, the U.S. EPA released a historic proposal for new rules to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, a step toward meeting the ambitious national goal of reducing these emissions 40 to 45 percent in the next decade. California is a step ahead, with new regulations already in development to cut methane from oil and gas operations within its borders.

Even as the rest of the nation begins to catch up, it’s critical that California continues to move forward with developing state standards that complement the federal rules, and go even further when necessary.

Methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are a massive problem – the industry emits more than 7 million tons of the potent greenhouse gas each year, equivalent to the 20-year climate impact of 160 coal-fired power plants. And the latest scientific research indicates the problem is even bigger than we think. For example, a study published just last week says previously unrecorded emissions from thousands of gathering facilities are eight times higher than estimates, and would increase the current inventory of methane emissions by almost 25 percent.

Methane is a challenge, but it also presents a big opportunity. Solutions for reducing methane emissions are feasible and highly cost effective, using simple, straightforward measures. That makes cutting methane – which is more than 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in the short term – the biggest bargain for greenhouse gas reductions in the energy business. For no extra cost, the same measures that reduce methane pollution will reduce other toxic and smog-forming pollutants and improve public health in local communities.

California, an oil and gas producer, and major user, has serious air quality problems that threaten the state’s environment and public health – we have some of the highest asthma rates in the nation, highest levels of smog, highest rate of greenhouse gas pollution, and most cities with documented air quality violations of federal health standards. State leaders recognized the role oil and gas methane pollution plays in these issues and last year, the state began developing a series of efforts to cut methane pollution, including:

The new California rules lay the groundwork to clean up oil and gas across the state through requirements like leak detection and repair, new pollution control systems at processing plants and compressors, and required change-out of equipment that purposefully vents pollution. Similarly, at the heart of the EPA’s federal methane proposal are some of the same things.

But that doesn’t mean California’s job is over – under the federal Clean Air Act, states must, at a minimum, meet federal air quality standards and are free to go further to protect their citizens and environment from harmful pollution. And while the EPA’s proposal is an important step, there are several places where California can do more.

For example, EPA’s proposed leak detection and repair standards, which include just annual and semi-annual monitoring requirements, fall short of those required in leading states and by a number of California air districts. Frequent monitoring for leaks is critical to finding and addressing methane emissions, since leaks can emerge anywhere at any time and can be difficult to predict. Whether or not the EPA’s monitoring requirements are bolstered by the time the rules are finalized, it is important that California holds itself to a high standard and requires more frequent monitoring and repair, one of the most critical tools for cutting methane.

And, EPA’s proposed rules also left out a few critical sources of methane emissions along the oil and gas supply chain that must be addressed. One of those sources is liquids unloading, a common maintenance practice operators use to purge liquids that accumulate during production, and a big contributor to methane emissions. States like Colorado have already taken action to set standards for liquids unloading, and California should do the same, even if EPA ultimately doesn’t do so in its final rules.

The EPA’s proposed methane standards are a critical step in the right direction because they apply to key components of the oil and gas system and will prevent pollution that creates warming, threatens public health, and wastes a valuable energy resource. California should welcome this new rulemaking, but as other leading Western states like Colorado and Wyoming have done, continue its own hard work to develop the strongest rules possible for the state.

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