Chiara Eisner, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Ever since a father and son managed to draw four whiskey barrels of oil from a hand-dug hole near California’s Kern River 121 years ago, productive oil and gas wells have multiplied like mushrooms across the area. Though such wells are expected to emit minimal amounts of greenhouse gases during the oil-extraction process, scientists from a space-related research group were shocked by the size of the methane plumes they detected when they flew an infrared sensor over Kern County in 2015. Repeating the flights three more times in the next three years confirmed the initial reading: some wells were releasing at least six times more of the potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere in one day than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated they should emit in a year.
Karen Jones is one of the scientists at the Aerospace Corporation, the California-based nonprofit organization that conducted the aerial survey. She says she felt mystified by what she calls a lack of action among the oil fields’ operators and regulators as she watched the methane—the second-highest contributor to human-caused warming after carbon dioxide—continuously spew over the years. “The gas coming out of Kern County isn’t supposed to be there,” she says.
Revelations like Aerospace’s, which the nonprofit published in a report this past summer, are becoming more common. For years, oil and gas companies have been required to detect and repair methane leaks in their equipment. But scientists have produced dozens of studies over the past decade that suggest the current methods and technology used by industry to detect leaks—and by regulators to estimate how much methane is emitted—are inadequate to catch the actual scale of the problem.
Nonprofit groups and private satellite companies may soon make high-quality data about methane publicly available and ubiquitous, potentially creating more pressure to address the situation. Action to plug leaks and prevent further air pollution may be stymied in the meantime, though: the Trump administration took numerous steps that could weaken environmental protections, including rules outlining how companies monitor for and locate natural gas leaks in their equipment (methane is the main component of natural gas). Whether those rules will be reversed when the Biden administration enters the White House, and how long that process will take if it happens, remains to be seen.