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Commissioner Blog: CPUC Acts to Cut Methane Pollution

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By Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen

In September, just as Gov. Brown's Global Climate Action Summit was getting underway in San Francisco, a front-page article in the New York Times demonstrated the importance of California's leadership in the fight against climate change.

"Trump Administration Formally Rolls Back Rule Aimed at Limiting Methane Pollution," the headline said.  Details of this predictable but misguided step on the part of the federal government stand in stark contrast to California's approach and to action the CPUC took at its most recent Voting Meeting on Oct. 11, 2018.

With a unanimous vote from our Consent Calendar, the CPUC approved new compliance plans that we required from regulated utilities to reduce methane emissions.  The move advances two CPUC policy goals: enhancing natural gas pipeline safety and integrity, and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Our Methane Leak Abatement program was established last year pursuant to Senate Bill 1371 (Leno, 2014) and sets a goal of reducing methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure by 40 percent from present day levels by 2030. It is also an important part of the state's Short-Lived Climate Pollutant reduction strategy, which seeks to reduce emissions of powerful climate-affecting pollutants that stay in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time than longer-lived pollutants such as carbon dioxide. Additional strategies being pursued by the California Air Resources Board focus on methane reductions from agriculture and other sources in the state. 

In a decision from the CPUC last year, we established 26 best practices that represent the nation's first comprehensive program to reduce methane emissions from utilities' natural gas delivery infrastructure.  The CPUC's most recent action is where the rubber meets the road - approved budgets for the utilities to implement the best practices.

In California we now have a new normal, where new leaks are promptly repaired; actions are taken to address the substantial methane emissions that occur during routine equipment maintenance; and known leaks that were previously not repaired because they did not present a safety concern will now be addressed, with a concerted effort to identify and stop "super emitter" leaks. 

In addressing the issue, we have considered costs of the measures and we trimmed Pacific Gas and Electric Company's (PG&E) budget for repairing very small existing leaks, which would achieve very little methane reduction at a high cost per ton. Our decision implementing the program does not require actions that are "cost-prohibitive," and staff properly weighed rate and cost impacts with the commensurate benefits. Since plans are revised every two years, we will re-evaluate these actions in future plans.

The forecasted budgets we approved for the utilities to adopt the previously identified best practices were as follows: Southern California Gas Company, $234 million; PG&E, $66 million; San Diego Gas & Electric, $12.3 million; and Southwest Gas Corporation, $2.4 million; for a total of $315 million.

All the proposed pilot and research and development programs will be subject to regular progress review by staff in our Safety and Enforcement Division, with utility representatives, at least every six months. We can also direct the utilities to discontinue any pilot or research and development project that is determined to no longer be in ratepayer interest.

This is another example of how California is taking responsible and thoughtful action on serious climate and environmental issues, even when the federal government is not.

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