For more than two months, methane has been escaping from a storage well in Los Angeles, causing the evacuation of thousands of homes and dumping more than six coal plants’ worth of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
Now, residents are suing, alleging that Southern California Gas Company took out and never replaced a safety valve that could have shut off the leak, and generally failed to maintain the site.
The gas leaking from the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility has been treated with an odorant, so that if there is a leak — say, in a home — it is detected (methane is naturally odorless). At this large scale, though, the odorant has been reportedly causing headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and other adverse reactions. SoCalGas has temporarily relocated 2,300 households and is working with another 1,500 on relocations, Kristine Lloyd, a spokesperson for the company, told ThinkProgress via email.
The residents’ complaint alleges that the company identified leaks at the Aliso Canyon site in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles, about 25 miles northwest of downtown, five years ago — and the company even received a rate hike to pay for improvements, which it never implemented.
“Despite the ratepayer increase and its annual profits of nearly $100 million, SoCalGas ‘slow-walked’ the replacement of valves,” attorney R. Rex Parris said in a statement. “In 2010, SoCalGas proposed spending $898,000 per year to replace five percent of its leaking valves each year — a 20-year program before the field was rendered safe.”
The company also allegedly removed a safety valve on the well that is now leaking and did not replace it. The class action filing alleges that SoCalGas and its parent company “negligently failed to construct, operate, and maintain” the storage facility.
Now, the company is scrambling to stop the health and climate disaster. They are operating around the clock to gain control over the gas — an estimated $12 million of which has already escaped.
“SoCalGas is committed to stopping the gas leak as quickly as possible,” Lloyd said. “To that end, we are creating a secondary relief well as backup to our ongoing drilling of the primary relief well.” The company has also been decreasing pressure by withdrawing gas from the facility, which slows the leak’s rate.
Still, as of Monday afternoon, more than 77,000 metric tons of methane have been released from the site, according to estimates from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which has been tracking the leak closely.
“It just goes to show that this is really a methane volcano going into the air that continues to the present day,” Timothy O’Connor, a director with EDF, told ThinkProgress.
The leak, which has been reduced by about 40 percent since it began on October 23, remains the single largest output of methane per day compared with all other oil and gas sources in California, O’Connor said.
In addition to the local effects of the leak, methane is a significant contributor to climate change. Making up about 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, methane breaks down more quickly than CO2, but over a hundred-year period, it is about 25 times more effective at trapping radiation, according to the EPA.
A large natural gas leak such as this one raises questions about how we store and even use natural gas. In this particular case, SoCalGas had already reported corrosion issues at the site and requested authority to raise $30 million for infrastructure improvements.
“These operations are going to be put under a microscope now more than ever,” O’Connor said. “What we have realized over the course of the last month… is there is really no universal approach to dealing with these facilities and there is certainly little to no federal regulations out there on them.”
There are about 400 other storage wells like the Aliso Canyon one, O’Connor said.
This is not the first time a natural gas leak has caused problems.
In 2001, natural gas stored in old salt mines leaked into Hutchison, Kansas and caused a series of explosions, killing two and destroying several buildings. In 2010, a pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight and injuring another 66.
Meanwhile, as the United States transitions away from carbon-heavy coal and more towards intermittent renewables and natural gas plants, fracking has also contributed to a natural gas boom. More and more gas is being transported, stored, and burned around the country.
“I think this opens the door to a larger conversation: the fact that this gas is used to meet the peaking electricity demands,” O’Connor said. Regulators need to look at “the role of natural gas for meeting peak electricity demand and how we reduce that role.”