Texas Methane Leaks are a Problem—for California

CA TXAliso Canyon was a big methane release, especially in Los Angeles, but in the grand scheme of methane released every day by the nation’s oil and gas industry, it was a blip. And recent footage from Texas, coupled with a new study of over 8,000 oil and gas wells gives a glimpse at the kind of leaks that are happening outside of California’s borders – leaks that have huge implications for the state.

The Texas infrared footage shows a cloud of methane leaking from a pump jack in an oil field in Texas’ Permian Basin. While these smaller leaks may not be as egregious as the one at Aliso Canyon, they often go undetected and unaddressed, adding up to a large amount of pollution. And as these leaks happen in Texas – with little plans to stop them – the climate footprint of the gas supply system continues to increase.

So what does this have to do with California? California imports nearly 90 percent of its natural gas from regions across western North America, with a large portion coming from Texas production areas like the Permian and Anadarko basins. To put it another way: when it comes to the climate, what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas. So even while progress is happening to cut oil and gas pollution in the Golden State, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure imported gas isn’t responsible for significant climate damage before it gets here.

Texas-sized methane problem

To put this problem into perspective, Texas releases nearly 10 times the methane emissions that leaked from Aliso Canyon into the air, every year. And as the nation’s leading methane polluter, Texas contributes about a third of the country’s total methane emissions. That’s a huge amount of climate damage, because methane is 84 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is emitted.

Taking into account new scientific research, those emissions are likely even higher. The latest data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, nationwide, industry’s methane emissions are 34 percent higher than previously thought. It’s an issue that’s of particular concern in Texas, where a recent study found methane levels in the state’s Barnett Shale may be up to 90 percent higher than earlier EPA estimates.

While California and other leading gas producing states like Colorado and Pennsylvania are making progress to address methane pollution, there’s no such effort happening in Texas. Methane pollution is also a wasted energy problem. Because natural gas essentially is methane, pumping it or burning it into the air is no different than throwing money away.

California’s legal duty

As we wrote (here), California’s Global Warming Law, AB 32, includes the responsibility to reduce methane emissions from the natural gas it uses, even if those emissions occur outside of state lines. AB 32 requires the state board to minimize leakage of greenhouse gases to achieve climate pollution goals, and under the law, the very definition of leakage is “a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases within the state that is offset by an increase in emissions of greenhouse gases outside the state.”

Over the last several decades, California has benefited from the use of natural gas for power generation and more recently, as a transportation fuel. However, recent analyses have shown that leakage of methane within the natural gas value chain can seriously undermine the climate benefit of using natural gas. So, while natural gas may be cutting in-state emissions, methane leaks from pipes and equipment that produce and transport gas into California from other states can nearly cancel out that benefit.

In addition to AB 32 requirements, other regulations (the Natural Gas Act – AB 1257) specifically address the need to reduce all methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, requiring the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to keep natural gas a low-emission resource and consider its role in meeting greenhouse gas targets. The law specifically requires CARB to evaluate environmental impacts of emissions reduction strategies using science-based analysis. Following on, AB 1496 (Thurmond) from 2015, requires CARB to develop the climate footprint analysis necessary to understand the role of imported gas in undermining the state’s climate progress.

State and federal efforts

California is on a good path toward addressing its own methane pollution problems, recently introducing some of the most stringent standards in the nation for methane emissions from oil and gas production, and also issuing emergency rules for natural gas storage in the wake of the Aliso Canyon disaster. But if California is to truly address the climate damage that comes from its natural gas use, it has to play an active role in efforts by other states and the federal government.

For example, by working with the Western Governors’ Association, California can work with states like Colorado to ensure others across the Western United States implement state-level rules to reduce methane during production, and cut down on methane pollution created along the supply chain that provides much of California’s fuel.

At the federal level, California can take a leading role by helping support robust regulations on oil and gas development currently being considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management, and actively support stronger pipeline standards and economic incentives at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to address methane emissions from interstate pipelines.

And at home, California can look to efforts like the recently released strategy to reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants that identifies the need to develop solutions to imported natural gas leakage, and SB 1441 that is currently working its way through the state legislature. These efforts recognize there are things California can do to push market signals for leakage reduction upstream – thereby reducing emissions in places like Texas without taking money out of Californians’ wallets.

California is taking a stand against methane pollution, but when top producers like Texas don’t, the only answer is strong federal rules, innovative state solutions, and regional cooperation that ensure all oil and gas producers take steps to cut their emissions.

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