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As feds roll back methane rule, California pushes ahead with its own

An oilfield in Kern County, California.
Flickr user ben klocek
An oilfield in Kern County, California.

As Congress moves towards scrapping a federal rule regulating methane, California is plowing forward with the nation's strictest rules designed to curb the emissions of the potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas sites – the latest example of the state going it alone on climate change.

The rule was one of a suite of environmental regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama Administration. Finalized just 10 days after the presidential election, it directs the Bureau of Land Management to crack down on leaks, flaring and venting of methane, which is the same as natural gas, on federal and tribal lands.

But the Congressional Review Act allows federal lawmakers to repeal regulations passed after June 13, 2016 with a simple majority vote.  The House has already voted to scrap the rule and prevent the BLM from ever passing a similar regulation again. The measure now heads to the Senate.

“We have no control over what the federal government does with their rules, but we can stick to our plan, which is what we’re doing,” said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.

California will be minimally impacted if Congress repeals the BLM rule because less than 10 percent of the state’s oil and gas comes from federal land. In addition, CARB’s proposed rule, which seeks to cut methane emissions by nearly half from oil and gas extraction, will cover both state and federal land.

It is supposed to be finalized before the end of the year, leaving only a small window when federal wells in California would be unregulated.

Methane is a short-lived pollutant, but it has 72 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Oil and gas methane emissions are both intentional and unintentional, and California's proposed rule targets both. The gas can seep out of leaky valves, tanks, and pipelines during the storage and transportation process. Companies also flare unwanted gas that comes up along with oil – something that is especially common when the price of oil is higher than the price of natural gas, making it uneconomic to capture it.

Statewide, the San Joaquin Valley is responsible for most of the methane emissions: nearly half of the leaks and 31 percent of the intentional releases. The South Coast is a distant third in both categories.

California’s proposed rule, introduced a year ago, is sweeping, It applies to all oil and gas sites in the state, both on and offshore, on private, state and federal lands (except those on tribal lands).

It also targets underground gas storage sites like Aliso Canyon, gas processing plants and compressor stations that help move natural gas along a pipeline. It would also require quarterly inspections and leak detection and repair.

Only Ohio and Colorado have their own methane rules, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. California’s, once finalized, will be the strictest, even more stringent than the embattled BLM rule.

Clegern shrugged off the suggestion California was going it alone yet again while the federal government retreated from action on climate change. He said California was simply trying to meet its own greenhouse gas reduction goals put into place by state law.

“We don’t strive to be leaders, but we just find ourselves in that position because we need to put the programs in place that we have,” he said.

The Western States Petroleum Association did not return a request for comment. But in a written letter to CARB, the industry group worried the new rule underestimated the cost of leak monitoring and detection. It also objects to quarterly inspections of all facilities, even those without a track record of leaks.

It's a concern shared by other oil and gas companies and industry groups including Southern California Gas Company, which was responsible for the four-month Aliso Canyon gas leak – the biggest such leak in the nation's history.