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Climate and Environment

California Expands Use Of Drones To Monitor Methane Leaks

A black oil pumpjack is in the center of the image with green tree canopy in the foreground and a neighbhorhood in the background.
An oil pumpjack near homes in the Inglewood Oil Field, Los Angeles, California.
(Gary Kavanagh
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California is expanding its use of drones to identify methane leaks from oil and gas facilities. You can’t see or smell methane, but it’s a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more effective at heating up the planet than carbon dioxide.

The California Geologic Energy Management division, or CalGEM, has identified more than 300 active drilling and oil storage sites to monitor in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, in cities such as Wilmington, Torrance, Compton and Yorba Linda, said State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk.

The division is prioritizing surveillance in communities overburdened by pollution, identified through the state’s environmental justice screening tool, CalEnviroScreen.

Across Los Angeles, oil wells, storage tanks and other fossil fuel infrastructure is disproportionately clustered in lower-income communities of color. Living near these facilities puts people at higher risks of health issues like asthma and heart disease.

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If methane is detected, the state will require the oil company to seal the leak and investigate its cause.

California currently uses airplanes and drones for occasional emissions surveillance of the state’s biggest facilities, like Aliso Canyon, and requires oil companies to submit reports of leaks and maintenance work every three months.

But other, smaller sites have been exempt from that requirement. Ntuk said the program aims to fill that gap.

“It’s another spot check that otherwise wouldn’t occur,” Ntuk said. “A lot of times the government agencies are constricted on their resources, so they just focus on the biggest challenges. But there's other sources that may not be as big as a refinery or an Aliso Canyon. So we can go out and be part of the solution.”

However, don’t expect regular checking of a site near you. While the surveillance will happen weekly, given the number of sites and that CalGEM only has one drone for all of southern California, a single site may only be monitored about every two to three years, Ntuk estimated.

Ntuk said CalGEM plans to publish a map for the public to show survey locations and emissions data later this year.

Skeptical Of Government Oversight

But some are skeptical of further monitoring.

“We don’t trust the system,” said Kyoko Hibino. She lives in Porter Ranch, just down the street from the gas storage field at Aliso Canyon. In 2015, lax enforcement and poor maintenance by SoCal Gas led to the largest methane leak in US history.

“We need a 24/7 monitoring system, and a drone cannot do that,” Hibino said. To prioritize public safety, the facilities need to be shut down, she said. She attributes a cancer diagnosis and other health issues to the pollutants from Aliso Canyon.

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Grassroots coalitions like STAND-L.A. have been fighting for decades to get the kind of infrastructure this new surveillance targets out of neighborhoods.

CalGEM is in the process of rulemaking that would require more continuous monitoring.

More Monitoring Is A Win

U.C. Riverside climate scientist Francesca Hopkins said more regular monitoring is a win for the public and the planet. She led research to map all of the sources of methane emissions in California back in 2016. That study found that California was underestimating its methane emissions.

“Going from finding all evidence of all these leaks and then less than a decade later, actually having regular monitoring, I actually see that as a success story,” Hopkins said.

“These methane leaks abound throughout the gas handling system,” she said. “For the climate, we really want to be regularly checking for these leaks to make sure they don't occur and when they do occur to take rapid action to fix them.”

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