Opinion: Methane Leaks in the Central Valley May Be Worsening COVID-19 Cases

An oil pump in Bakersfield. Photo by Gary Kavanagh.

COVID-19 is now on track to become one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States in 2020. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, people with underlying medical conditions like respiratory diseases are at increased risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19.

This is bad news by any standard, but terrible news if you happen to live in an area such as California’s San Joaquin Valley where the pre-COVID death rate due to chronic lower respiratory disease is 12 times higher than that of the rest of the state and 14 times higher than the national rate, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Numerous studies have already demonstrated that air pollution is associated with pulmonary morbidity and mortality. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California’s Kern County has some of the nation’s worst air quality and is federally classified as “severe nonattainment,” which means it does not meet the federal ozone and particulate matter standards. Several industries contribute to the area’s regional air quality problem, including the petroleum industry.

Volatile organic compounds such as methane from upstream oil and gas operations interact with sunlight and nitrogen oxides to form harmful ground-level ozone. The San Joaquin Valley’s air quality problems will persist if the sources of air pollution are not mitigated. The good news is that if the source is a point source, such as an oil well, identifying exactly where the problem exists is a key first step toward addressing the methane leak. 

Many of the wells in the region are over 90 years old, and while many continue to pump oil they also emit high amounts of methane into the atmosphere.  The Aerospace Corporation has been flying specialized aircraft over three Kern County oil fields (Poso Creek, Kern River and Kern Front) and monitoring and imaging methane emissions since 2014. The observed methane emissions from these fields are significant with several wells leaking at rates over 200,000 percent above the EPA average estimate for western U.S. gas wells. Although these images have been shared with state regulators, not enough action has yet been taken to mitigate excessive methane emissions.

Aerospace’s airborne infrared imaging sensor can detect methane gas leaks at approximately 20 MCFD (1,000 cubic feet per day) and higher. However, many of the Kern County methane emissions occurred at much higher rates — upwards of 100 MCFD.  Conservatively applying a minimal leak detection rate (20 MCFD) these three fields could have leaked 3.9 BCF (billion cubic feet) between April 2015 and September 2018, the period during which four methane surveys were flown. This estimate does not include emissions before or after these survey dates and only includes super-emitters that were above our sensor’s detection limits of 20 MCFD.  Since our estimate only considers a small subset of the operating wells, it is reasonable to think that the actual gas escaping from these three fields is well above 3.9 BCF.  Kern County oil fields have been leaking for years despite airborne hyperspectral imaging studies showing large methane plumes originating from wellheads, stock tanks and gathering systems.

Gathering actionable methane plume imagery on a routine basis could be used to efficiently find and fix leaks. The benefits extend well beyond even health and safety. For instance, capturing and transporting escaped gas from these three oil fields in Kern County (applying an average spot price of $2.50 per MCF) could have yielded upwards of $9.7 million in revenue during the airborne survey time frame (April 2015 to September 2018). 

Many will recall the Aliso Canyon blowout that occurred between October 2015 and February 2016 and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. After 118 days the natural gas storage facility leak was brought under control, with an estimated 4.6 BCF of gas escaping.  Comparing methane emissions from hundreds of producing oil wells in Kern County to a single point source blowout over a shorter time frame is not an exact comparison. But it underscores that catastrophic leaks that make national headlines are addressed quickly while large long-term emitters continue for years with no apparent regulatory notice. 

It’s also interesting to note that the processed gas leaked from Aliso Canyon already had some toxic chemicals removed. By contrast, Kern oil wells leak unprocessed gas which could contain higher percentages of toxic compounds.

Sure, we’re all in this pandemic together … but the odds are against you if you live in a polluted area that receives little regulatory scrutiny or media attention.

Karen L. Jones is a senior policy and technology strategist at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

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