Loni Cortez Russell: California must do better to stop methane leaks

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air in the country. This summer, after years of dismal air quality evaluations, the state’s top air pollution regulator, the California Air Resources Board, is considering new rules to help curb emissions from oil and gas production, and to specifically address methane, the primary component of natural gas.

The California Air Resources Board’s recent proposed rules can do a lot for California communities and families. For example, they cover oil and gas production, including onshore and offshore facilities, and require emissions controls on equipment like tanks, pumps, compressors and valves. However, since irregular maintenance can undermine the performance of emissions controls, the fact that their proposal doesn’t require regular inspections means it simply just doesn’t go far enough.

Most methane emissions are a result of leaks from aging and faulty equipment during the production process. The new rules propose that operators perform equipment inspections and maintenance just once a year — not often enough to catch problems before they cause irreversible damage to our families’ air and our health.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, packing a much bigger punch than carbon dioxide in the short term, making it responsible for 25% of the warming we are feeling today. The toxic mix of other pollutants like Benzene, Toluene and Xylene, released alongside methane emissions, poses serious public health threats and has been linked to a multitude of illnesses, including asthma, heart disease and cancer. Methane also adds to ground ozone levels, or smog, and Central and Southern California are some of the smoggiest regions of California and the U.S., with many cities and counties exceeding national ozone compliance standards. Smog is powerful lung irritant that isextremely dangerous to developing and little lungs.

Children bear the brunt of pollution-related illnesses, especially in areas where oil and gas production facilities sit next to homes, schools and public spaces like playgrounds. It is incomprehensible to me that regulators have allowed oil and gas operations to be sited near areas where kids live and play, and at the very least it is their responsibility to take action to protect them from further harm.

Other states, including Colorado, Wyoming, and Ohio, have stepped up to the plate on reducing emissions by requiring oil and gas operators to inspect and maintain their equipment, many on a quarterly basis. And while California continues to proclaim its leadership in all things climate-related, even the state’s local air districts have imposed more stringent regulations on inspections and maintenance than CARB’s weak proposal. Ironically, the proposed rules would allow operators of all sizes to choose a loose annual inspection option, as opposed to a rigorous quarterly inspection requirement, effectively taking a step back. Given the ambitious goals the state has set for emissions reductions, stronger rules are needed to ensure strong and consistent emissions reduction efforts throughout the state to protect California families.

Just as it’s impossible to predict when your plumbing will back up or your stove’s heating element will go out, oil and gas operators cannot predict with accuracy when a seal will loosen, or a piece of equipment will fail. The only way we can be sure that the air California children breathe and the environment they live in is healthy, is if the state’s regulatory agencies require operators to maintain their equipment to the highest standard of integrity.

Californians, especially our kids, deserve better than what is currently proposed. Allowing oil and gas operators to choose when to maintain equipment based on annual inspection cycles is a recipe for disaster. The science on methane is clear — it is a huge contributor to climate change due to its potent short-term warming power, and the other harmful air pollutants emitted along with it from oil and gas sources have significant public health consequences. As CARB must surely know, cost-effective solutions to reduce methane leaks are already available, and technology advancements are increasingly allowing operators to survey equipment faster and more safely than traditional methods.

Methane leaks have the potential to undo many of the benefits we stand to gain from California’s landmark anti-pollution laws; failure to address them is a serious gap in our state’s efforts to curb climate change and to reduce air quality impacts on our most vulnerable families and communities. CARB can — and must — do better.

Loni Cortez Russell is California field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and represents the voice of over 50,000 Californians who support strong limits on pollution in our state.