Wait, what happened?
Since October 23rd, a ruptured natural gas storage well in southern California has leaked over 78,000 metric tons of methane into the air and atmosphere. The leak has already displaced over 2,000 families, forced two schools to relocate for the 2016 spring semester—and people living in the surrounding area have experienced headaches and difficulty breathing. Just this week, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency over the gas leak. Although these gas leaks are invisible to the naked eye, the Environmental Defense Fund’s infrared camera has captured the tragedy:
Yet these painful, disruptive, and costly impacts are only part of the story. Like all fossil fuels, the combustion of natural gas dumps carbon into the atmosphere. However, natural gas has the potential to be especially harmful when managed poorly because its primary component, methane, is a very potent short-term climate pollutant. The case in California is a dramatic example of a greater system-wide problem in the oil and natural gas industries: methane leakage.
Natural gas is bad for the climate, especially when handled improperly.
Methane that escapes at any point during oil and natural gas production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution processes is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. Beyond its combustion emissions, the EPA’s most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory reports that the energy industry is responsible for releasing methane equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from over 55 million cars. It is essential that the oil and gas sectors decrease leakage throughout their industries because this pollution puts our country on track to realize the worst case climate change scenarios. We can and must transition away from these dirty resources altogether—creating jobs, improving public health, and growing the economy.
Measure, limit, and enforce to kick our methane habit.
First, we must continue to develop our understanding of the scale and nature of methane leakage from United States oil and gas industries. Thankfully, over the last four years experts at the Environmental Defense Fund have teamed up with industry, research institutes, and academics to produce a series of studies that explore both impacts and potential solutions.
Second, just last year the EPA initiated the regulatory process to limit methane pollution from new sources. Controlling methane pollution is legally required. The Supreme Court found in 2012 that EPA has a duty to regulate dangerous greenhouse gases such as methane under the Clean Air Act and Clean Air Act Amendments—laws that were passed by Congress and signed by Republican presidents. Methane regulations will be written under the same sections of the Clean Air Act as the Clean Power Plan, and the EPA has already collected public comment on its draft rule concerning new sources of methane emissions from the oil and gas industries.
However, regulating just the new sources will not affect the unacceptable level of methane pollution that currently escapes from existing oil and gas operations. As Sara Jordan of NextGen Climate explained last fall,
“In 2018, nearly 90 percent of the projected emissions will come from oil production and existing natural gas infrastructure.”
The EPA—the public agency responsible for our environmental security—should take a lesson from the Clean Power Plan and limit methane pollution from existing sources as well. Rules governing new and existing sources are a necessary start, but tackling the challenge of methane emissions cannot stop there. Environmental regulators, either at the federal or state level, will need to strictly enforce these regulations and will require the tools and technical resources to do so.
How well the U.S. controls methane emissions, including emissions like the horrifying leak in southern California, will be key in determining whether our nation is a global leader on climate action and whether we protect those who are most vulnerable to the growing harms and costs of climate change.