California Senate Responds To Natural Gas Leak With Package Of Regulatory Legislation

CREDIT: Courtesy the office of State Sen. Fran Pavley

State Sen. Fran Pavley, flanked by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon and State Sen. Ben Allen, speaks to reporters Monday near the leaking Aliso Canyon Storage Facility.

Leadership in the California Senate announced a package of bills Monday in response to the ongoing natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles neighborhood 25 miles northwest of downtown.

The four bills have several key elements, including increasing inspections and safety requirements for the state’s natural gas infrastructure. The package calls for changes to the emergency management of methane leaks; sets emissions reduction targets for short-lived greenhouse gases, including methane; and puts an immediate moratorium on gas being put in any of the wells located at the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility. It also requires the polluter — in this case, Southern California Gas Company — to be solely responsible for mitigation and emergency response costs.

To date, the leaking well at Aliso Canyon — where half the 111 wells are more than 60 years old — has emitted some 82,000 metric tons of methane, releasing nearly $13 million worth of natural gas and accounting for more than a quarter of California’s daily methane emissions.

In addition, at least 2,300 households have been evacuated, with residents complaining of headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, and other health problems, largely due to the odorant added to the gas. There are also concerns that the well — a former oil well — might be contaminating the gas with oil-related toxins such as benzene.

Resident Allan Kim, a member of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, told reporters Monday he hoped the leak would prompt new regulations that would prevent future disasters.

“I never imagined myself as an environmental activist or an activist of any kind,” Kim said. “For many years, I only cared for my business and my family, but the gas leak has made me feel a need to be more involved.”

Kim has joined Food and Water Watch, a California-based environmental advocacy group, and is now a member of Save Porter Ranch.

“I would urge our leaders not to forget the need to provide information and services that will be accessible by all,” Kim said during a press conference Monday.

He also read a statement from Save Porter Ranch that called for a total shutdown of the wells at Aliso Canyon and called the state to task for inadequate regulation. “We hope this incident provides the momentum necessary to enact laws and regulations that, this time, protect California,” he said.

The well in question is more than 60 years old — and a safety valve that would have likely prevented this leak was removed in the 1970s due to a different leak. It was never replaced.

A civil suit has been filed in the case, but more regulators and legislators seem to agree that SoCalGas didn’t actually flaunt any regulation in the lead up to the disaster.

“We’re here on behalf of the people who live and work in Porter Ranch, ensuring that they can return to their homes and businesses and have a safe place to live,” Sen. Fran Pavley (D), who represents the neighborhood, told reporters. “This is a challenge, it is a tragedy, and I know we can do better.”

Calling natural gas a “transitional fuel,” Pavley also said that the well shutdown will not happen “overnight.” One of the questions facing regulators is, “How do we make sure there is adequate supply?” she said.

Pavley acknowledged, though, that current regulations are woefully deficient. For instance, safety valves aren’t required on natural gas storage wells more than 300 feet from schools or residences. The leaking well at Aliso Canyon, though, is a mile from evacuated homes in Porter Ranch.

The rise in natural gas — which is increasingly being used for electricity generation, as coal declines — has raised questions about its safety. While natural gas burns fairly cleanly, it is mostly made of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, so unburned leaks are a significant issue.

A report titled Rising Risk released by the Environmental Defense Fund on Monday looks at the huge amount of methane that is entering the atmosphere from the oil and gas industry.

In a section called, bluntly, “The current state of methane reporting is inadequate,” the organization reports that hardly any natural gas companies report methane leaks, making it difficult for regulators or investors to evaluate risks.

The report estimates that some $30 billion worth of natural gas is lost each year, $2 billion of which comes from U.S. operators. These leaks represent a significant risk for the companies, EDF says. In fact, roughly half the investment that could prevent leaks would end up justifying the expense.

And that’s putting aside the climate concerns — and the associated regulation. The EPA has already drafted a methane rule that would apply only to new infrastructure, and the Bureau of Land Management is expected to begin to regulate methane leaked from oil and gas development on public lands. Many expect that national regulations will be introduced to cover existing, private infrastructure, as well, according to EDF. About 90 percent of methane emissions in 2018 are expected to come from existing sources, the group says, making it a critical sector for lowering overall emissions.

Last summer, investors representing $1.5 trillion in investment offered their support for methane regulation.