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California to fight methane leaks from pipelines, underground gas storage sites like Aliso Canyon

A natural gas pipeline in the Mojave Desert. California is cracking down on methane leaks from oil and gas equipment.
Flickr user Rennett Stowe
A natural gas pipeline in the Mojave Desert. California is cracking down on methane leaks from oil and gas equipment.

As Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency seek to roll back federal regulations designed to fight climate change and air pollution, California is pushing ahead with rules of its own.

At a meeting in Riverside on Thursday, the California Air Resources Board passed the nation’s strictest methane regulations for the oil and gas industry.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has 72 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide even though it doesn’t linger in the atmosphere for nearly as long. Methane is the main component of natural gas, which is used for generating electricity, heating homes, powering buses and cars, and for small appliances like hot water heaters and stoves.

Natural gas is sometimes viewed a cleaner alternative to coal, which emits twice as much carbon-dioxide as natural gas does when burned. But in recent years, scientists and even energy companies have begun to question whether uncontrolled methane leaks negate the climate benefits of natural gas.

In 2015 alone, 6.6 billion cubic feet of gas leaked from California's investor-owned utilities -- more than the 5.7 billion the leak at SoCal Gas's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field. The leaks mostly come from pipelines, underground storage, and appliances that use gas. The 6.6 billion cubic feet figure is likely an underestimation of the statewide total, because it doesn't include leaks from natural gas wells and production sites. 

California’s new rule seeks to make natural gas cleaner by reducing leaks. The rule targets both natural gas distribution and production, both on and off shore. It applies to both new and existing equipment. It requires natural gas storage sites, like Aliso Canyon, to have leak monitors that operate 24/7. For most other types of equipment, companies must do quarterly inspections and make repairs quickly if they discover leaks.

According to Elizabeth Paranhos, an attorney working with the Environmental Defense Fund, the rule goes beyond what is required by Colorado, the only other state with a comprehensive oil and gas methane reduction rule, making it the nation’s strictest.

California's rule should help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction target: California has just 13 years to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels.

The rule is also expected to benefit public health, because chemicals like benzene, a known carcinogen, are emitted along with the gas.

"Here in Los Angeles we have a high concentration of oil drilling in communities like Wilmington," said Sean Hecht, Co-Executive Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. "And in those situations, it affects people’s health directly," because often they are living alongside well pads, pipelines, and other gas infrastructure.

The move by the Air Resources Board to pass the new climate regulation stands in stark contrast to what's happening in Washington, D.C., where Congress has already begun the process of repealing an Obama-era methane rule.

Just three days before President Trump took office, a Bureau of Land Management regulation requiring oil and gas companies to reduce on methane leaks on federal and tribal lands took effect. The U.S. House of Representatives has already voted to repeal the rule using the Congressional Review Act, which allows federal lawmakers to repeal recently passed regulations with a simple majority vote. The U.S. Senate is now considering whether to do the same. If the rule is repealed using this method, the BLM would be prevented from ever passing a similar regulation again.