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California Passes Toughest Methane Emission Regulations in U.S.

California air quality officials have approved what are widely considered to be the most rigorous and comprehensive regulations in the country for controlling methane emissions, a move that helps cement the state's status as a standard-bearer for environmental protection.

By Dominic Fracassa

California air quality officials have approved what are widely considered to be the most rigorous and comprehensive regulations in the country for controlling methane emissions, a move that helps cement the state's status as a standard-bearer for environmental protection.

The new rules, green-lighted Thursday by the state's Air Resources Board, seek to curb methane emissions at oil and gas production plants by up to 45 percent over the next nine years. The cuts will come from a combination of heightened efficiency requirements, inspection mandates and rules meant to ensure that leaks are discovered and fixed swiftly. The regulations apply to both onshore and offshore oil and gas centers.

The standards, which experts said mark the first major piece of environmental regulation passed by any state since the turnover of power in Washington, were hailed as a triumph by environmental activists, but criticized as cumbersome, costly and ultimately unnecessary by oil and gas producers.

"Our industry is not the top emitter of methane in the state, yet this rule will add to the nation's toughest regulations that our operators must follow, such as cap and trade," Rock Zierman, the chief executive officer of industry trade group the California Independent Petroleum Association, said in a statement. "We hope that regulators will provide ample time for implementation and ensure that the program is fairly and consistently enforced across the state."

The move by the state board coincided with efforts by members of Congress to undo federal rules finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration that seek to curtail methane emissions on federal and tribal lands.

The House of Representatives has already voted to overturn the rule. The Senate is expected to take up the issue in the coming weeks.

The Trump administration has also proposed sharp budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. Timothy O'Connor, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund's oil and gas program in California, said he expects more states to follow California's lead when it comes to air quality regulation in anticipation of a lack of support from the federal government.

"The Trump administration appears not to be concerned, and we think that's backwards," O'Connor said. "If the federal government won't protect the people and the environment from pollution, it's up to the states to be responsible actors."

Other states, including Colorado, Ohio and Wyoming, have laws on the books to reduce methane emissions, but "no other state has taken on both oil and gas operations. No other state has taken on both onshore and offshore" operations, O'Connor said.

The oil and gas industry accounts for about 4 percent of California's total methane emissions, according to the Air Resources Board. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is the second-most-abundant greenhouse gas emitted in the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But, as the EPA reports, methane is substantially more efficient at trapping radiation compared with carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas emitted. Pound for pound, methane's impact on climate change is 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, the EPA says.

About 33 percent of all methane emitted in the U.S. comes from natural gas and petroleum systems, according to the EPA. The gas can sputter out from transmission equipment and storage tanks throughout the production supply chain, in addition to controlled ventilation procedures that emit methane and other gases intentionally.

The regulations approved Thursday require that oil and gas operators above a certain size implement vapor recovery systems that will allow for methane that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere to be captured and reused. The rules also specify that producers must monitor and report on leaks from underground storage sites four times a year.

Previously, those inspections were required just once a year, but the Air Resources Board moved to require additional checks after the leak of an estimated 94,000 tons of natural gas from Southern California Gas' Aliso Canyon storage facility in Los Angeles County. Gas seeped out of the site for almost four months beginning in October 2015.

In a conference call Wednesday ahead of the board's vote, Adam Brandt, an associate professor of energy resources at Stanford, said that more frequent inspections are imperative given that just 5 percent of all known leaks in a given year will account for roughly half of all the leaked gas.

"You can have a situation where a small number of leaks is causing a relatively large amount of emissions. So it's important to find these leaks quickly," Brandt said, adding that most or all of the costs of the new regulations could be offset because fewer leaks mean that producers will have more natural gas to sell.

Michael Mills, an attorney at the law firm Stoel Rives in Sacramento who represents the oil and gas industry, said the costs associated with complying with the new regulations will be particularly painful for smaller petroleum companies.

"In California, there are a lot of small, mom-and-pop operators that regulations like this put a tremendous strain on," Mills said. "It's very, very expensive, to the point where they might not be able to continue."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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