State of hypocrisy: California challenges Trump on methane while quietly buying natural gas from polluting states

Efforts to stop in-state methane leaks represent 2 percent of California’s natural gas footprint

illustration by sarah hansel

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

California climate regulators adopted the strictest methane rules in the country this summer, minimizing leaks on natural gas rigs that produce the energy to warm millions of homes and businesses.

But a closer look at our energy consumption habits shows the high standards that signal California as a global environmental leader serve another function—as a smokescreen to enable pollution outside of the Golden State.

The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, approved a methane-control plan in March, requiring utilities to implement emissions-capturing technology, along with stricter monitoring and reporting of methane leaks. In June, the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, adopted a companion rule requiring in-state utilities to step up their reduction of methane emissions 40 percent by 2030.

The regulations were lauded as among the first to target methane, around the same time that the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress were attempting to loosen Obama-era restrictions. The main component of natural gas and a significant driver of global warming, methane gets released by oil and gas rigs as a cost-saving measure. It also comes from manure, livestock and landfills, and traps heat 72 times more than carbon dioxide over short periods.

California may be setting a national benchmark by requiring in-state natural gas producers to limit their methane waste, but, in many ways, it’s a hollow standard.

Utilities actually import more than 90 percent of natural gas from other states—up to 98 percent, according to the CPUC—many of which don’t adhere to California-level environmental standards.

At best, some environmental advocates say that makes California an enabler of the pollution its leaders claim to be controlling. While a federal rule to limit some methane leaks was upheld this summer, California could use its buying power to force methane reductions in other states, they said.

“Should California require all companies selling natural gas to our state [to] meet the same restrictions as in-state producers do? I say that’s a resounding yes,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California.

Natural gas pipelines flow into California from across the West and Canada like pipes into a swimming pool, according to Tim O’Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oil and Gas program. Millions of tiny leaks occur along the way, as well as during extraction. Without requirements to capture the gas in other states, burning or leaking it is the cheapest solution for companies.

Exactly which states California imports the most gas from is unclear. State and federal agencies could not provide accurate information. The state Energy Commission referred questions to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which only tracks state-to-state transfers, not where the gas originates.

Amy Myers Jaffe, director of energy and sustainability at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, said Colorado and Texas are two of California’s main natural gas sources. Colorado’s methane restrictions are as strict as California’s, she said. But methane flaring—intentionally burning gas to save money—remains an issue in Texas. And California has issues of its own, including reusing fracking water in agriculture, which Texas doesn’t, she said.

Annually, Texas releases nearly 10 times the amount of methane emissions as the Aliso Canyon disaster last year. That leak produced nearly 100,000 tons of methane pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the domestic oil and gas infrastructure sends 90 times that amount to the atmosphere nationwide.

“A lot of industry players already have policies limiting methane leaks,” said Jaffe, a global energy policy expert. “There will be a national regulation. But just because there’s a regulation, that doesn’t mean there will be compliance.”

NASA is conducting an aerial survey to determine which states have the worst methane leaks, but initial estimates point to Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, all of which California has pipeline access to. A study published in the journal Science in 2014 also found that official inventories routinely underestimate methane leaks, which are odorless and invisible.

Colorado became the first state to regulate “fugitive” methane emissions in 2014. California took a closer look after the Aliso Canyon blowup in 2015 spewed the largest amount of methane gas emitted in U.S. history near Los Angeles, causing numerous public health problems and displacing families.

Aliso Canyon—the country’s second largest natural gas storage facility—is in Fran Pavley’s district. The now-retired senator co-wrote California’s landmark cap-and-trade regulations, the world’s first bills requiring companies to pay to pollute. In an interview with SN&R, Pavley said Aliso Canyon made it clear that utilities should be responsible for their fuels’ pollutants.

“The frustration and realization was there was no incentive to utility companies to reduce their methane leaks, replacing their old pipelines or replacing their injection wells like at Aliso Canyon, which was 65 years old,” Pavley said. “And it doesn’t affect [the utility companies’] bottom line; they just pass it on to their ratepayers.”

Mark Leno, a state senator when the San Bruno pipeline exploded in 2010, asked Pavley to co-author Senate Bill 1441. It would have recognized California’s stature as the second largest user of natural gas in the country and finally analyzed the full life-cycle of natural gas, including from leaks in transport and imports from other states. The bill would have required the CARB and the CPUC to develop incentives minimizing leaks in the natural gas California utilities buy.

The bill failed, though, after legislators realized regulators had no idea how to track fugitive emissions.

“We found out it was damn near impossible to establish rigorous standards if [the bill] didn’t have any ability to track where these emissions came from,” said O’Connor, one of the bill’s lead proponents.

Other parts of the bill, including a provision forcing utilities to pay for lost gas—aimed at incentivizing the companies to stop leaks—died with it.

Instead, the state Legislature went with SB 839, which includes a provision directing the California Energy Commission to study how much it would cost to track those emissions. The report is due back on September 15.

The California Democratic Environmental Caucus said it doesn’t usually take positions on bills. But Pavley and O’Connor hope legislation like SB 1441 gets introduced again.

“If we require cleaner cars, it becomes a de facto national or international policy,” Pavley said. “We’re keeping a lot of bad natural gas facilities open and profitable because we don’t put requirements on out-of-state producers.”

And if California doesn’t stop buying natural gas from methane-burning states?

“I wouldn’t say it’s hypocritical, but it may be near-sighted, or sticking your head in the sand,” O’Connor said. “California is only directly responsible for 1 percent of the world’s emissions. However, it takes a heck of a lot of raw materials to power the sixth-largest economy in the world.”

Environmentalists and a few Republicans made unlikely bedfellows this summer after three members of Congress refused to repeal an Obama-era rule limiting methane leaks on federal lands. Due to an obscure legislative process, the repeal would have made regulating methane in the rule’s scope off limits, forever.

The rule—which prevents $330 million-worth of methane waste annually, enough to warm Chicago’s homes and businesses for a year—was upheld.

A similar EPA rule survived after California and 12 other states sued to stop Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, from delaying its implementation. An appeals court struck down the delay in July, though the case could rise to the Supreme Court.

Yet, the EPA rule only mandates that new oil and gas operations reduce their methane emissions. And the Obama rule is restricted to rigs on federal land. That leaves California utilities free to buy gas from older rigs, no matter the emissions, even as state leaders wage a highly visible environmental battle against Trump.

Cutting methane emissions won’t stop long-term warming—that would take drastically cutting carbon dioxide emissions, which can last a millennium, compared to methane’s atmospheric life of a century. But it could reduce the rate of short-term warming, which the world is already seeing the effects.

A study published in January said methane is responsible for roughly a third of global warming. And the researchers found the short-lived gas could cause effects lasting hundreds of years.

Sen. Henry Stern is Pavley’s successor. The former energy attorney said from the legislative floor that fugitive emissions should have been understood and analyzed much sooner. He wants to take up that mantle, he told SN&R.

“We’re the biggest energy buyer in the whole country. Our actions aren’t symbolic; this is economic leadership,” Stern said. “If folks want to ship gas across the country with fugitive emissions, we should be able to monitor what those are.”

Consumers are at the mercy of utilities that pay more to wasteful companies, he said. Saving lost gas means a more plentiful, cheaper supply.

“Methane is a major public health issue,” Stern said. “If ratepayers knew these fugitive costs hit their bill, they would demand change.”