BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study this week calling for more transparency in the oil industry, and nominating California as the leader in the fight for clean air.
“Need to Know: The Case for Oil Transparency in California,” details information about the oil and natural gas industry and its greenhouse gas emissions.
Deborah Gordon, the author, told Courthouse News the study should help California, the nation’s third-largest oil-producing state, protect climate, health, and public safety by indentifying the worst offenders. It also shows how California can lead innovation to reduce emissions.
“This study lets stakeholders – policymakers, regulators, investors, industry, NGOs, academia, and citizens – know their oil, and allows us to perform lifecycle assessments that compare different oil options and make better decisions for oil in a warming world,” Gordon said.
Though California leads the country on progressive climate policy, many California oils emit as much carbon pollution as Canadian oil sands, a heavy oil that is difficult to extract, but little is known about the oils and the resulting products, according to the study.
“Oil resources are far more heterogeneous than is publicly acknowledged. They are as different from each other in composition as paint thinner is from peanut butter,” the report states.
“Measurable differences and variations in extraction methods, processing requirements, refining techniques, and the slate of end products results in wildly varying emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) between these oils.”
Heavier oils emit more particulates during their production lifecycle, while lighter, watery oils are more likely to produce methane and smog. Oils with high sulfur content are more likely to emit sulfur oxides during refining.
Though data must be collected on each type of oil’s chemical composition to assess the impacts of extraction and refining, California does not collect this kind of information and treats each type of oil alike, without accounting for these variations.
Despite this drawback, the study “provisionally identifies total GHG emissions in the oil supply chain, which vary from oil to oil and creates incentives to target innovation where emissions occur,” Gordon said.
Kara Siepmann with the Western States Petroleum Association disagreed with the studies, calling them “opinion pieces that completely ignore California’s global leadership in air quality and greenhouse gas emission standards, policies and practices.”
Thanks to the California Air Resources Board, regional air quality districts and state and local agencies, “there is no place in the world with more transparency and oversight of the petroleum industry,” Siepmann said in an email.
“Our state has the most stringent environmental standards in the nation, and the state’s oil producers, refiners and providers are partners in that process, committed to upholding and abiding by these standards,” she said.
But Gordon said not much information about oil was publicly available before her report: The industry and state oil regulators released information in a piecemeal fashion.
“It was a lot of zeroing in, in a noncomprehensive way,” she said. “This study looks at the whole barrel. It’s the first time that the whole cycle has been studied.”
Gordon and her study partners gathered data by using California’s Oil-Climate Index, which analyzes greenhouse gas emissions from crude oils throughout the supply chain. They also gathered information on upstream emissions through Stanford University’s Oil Production Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimator, and got data for 154 oilfields from the California Air Resources Board and the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.
Analysis revealed a 60 percent gap between the lowest and highest emissions-intense oils in the state. The highest greenhouse gas-emitting oils produced in the largest volumes were the Midway Sunset, South Belridge, and Kern River oilfields, all them in Kern County, according to an interactive map.
These oils “pose critical climate risks and call for immediate policy attention,” the study states.
Kern County, pop. 839,631, at the southern end of the Central Valley, stretches west from the Coastal Ranges to the eastern Sierra Nevada and into the Mojave Desert. Its primary industries are oil and agriculture, with space and aviation steadily gaining prominence.
The county has some of the most polluted air in the nation. Though surrounded on three sides by mountains, they are often smothered beneath thick blankets of smog and haze. Air pollution is not linked to respiratory diseases such as asthma and can cause developmental harm in children, cardiovascular disease, and premature death.
Many California oilfields, including Midway Sunset, are depleted and require enhanced oil recovery techniques to extract oil and gas. Though these techniques enhance production, they also increase emissions and thus increase climate risks, according to the study.
“As oil resources themselves and operating conditions change over time, technologies to extract and refine them follow suit. This presents new risks and calls for new protections. Transparency is a prerequisite for safe oversight,” Gordon said.
Since what is not measured cannot be managed, California must know its oil.
Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, introduced the federal Know Your Oil Act in 2016, which would require oil companies to release field-level data, but it has not been passed.
The study recommends that oil producers routinely report oil assays in an open-source format, allowing state agencies to protect public health, oversee handling of resources, and “facilitate a more accurate benefits assessment for replacing oil with low-carbon alternative fuels.”
Creating a database of representative oil assays would allow comparison of California oils through the Oil-Climate Index, which could be expanded to include co-benefits as well as air pollutants, the study states.
California is already a leader in emissions reduction. With a gross domestic product of nearly one in seven dollars of the country’s total GDP, and the world’s sixth-largest economy, other states and nations are watching California emissions policy.
That requires more information, which is what this study offers, Gordon said. The industry cannot know where to apply innovations that reduce emissions without comprehensive analysis showing what and where the worst offenders are.
Though it’s a challenge, Gordon insisted that California is up to the task.
“It may be unfair to pin it on California, but California is also a leader,” she said. “California could find innovations and make sure they happen safely.
“It’s a challenge, but the reality is, if you’re a leader, you lead.”