California neighborhood hopes methane leak settlement is first step to shutting down storage site

It's the worst single natural gas leak in U.S. history.

A sign marking the boundary of the Aliso Canyon storage facility is pictured in Porter Ranch, California, on January 6, 2016. CREDIT: JONATHAN ALCORN/AFP/Getty Images
A sign marking the boundary of the Aliso Canyon storage facility is pictured in Porter Ranch, California, on January 6, 2016. CREDIT: JONATHAN ALCORN/AFP/Getty Images

California’s attorney general, together with Los Angeles area officials, reached a tentative settlement, totaling $119.5 million, with Southern California Gas over the 2015 massive natural gas leak at the company’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the San Fernando Valley.

As part of the settlement, announced Wednesday, Southern California Gas will pay for a $25 million health study of residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood, in the northwestern portion of the valley. About 8,000 families were forced to relocate for several months during the Aliso Canyon leak.

Discovered in October 2015, the 112-day leak at the Aliso Canyon facility released about 5 billion cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere before it was sealed. It is the worst single natural gas leak in U.S. history. At the time, the underground storage facility, one of the largest in the country, contained about 186 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas.

A paper published in the February 2016 issue of Science estimated that 97,100 metric tons of methane were emitted from the Aliso Canyon facility in total. Over a 20-year period, methane is estimated to have a warming effect on Earth’s atmosphere 84 times that of carbon dioxide. By that metric, the Aliso Canyon leak produced the same amount of global warming as more than 1.7 million cars in a full year.

Huge plumes of natural gas — captured by infrared video cameras — poured from the rupture for nearly four months. Officials for the gas company made seven unsuccessful attempts to stop the flow before the well was finally sealed with cement on February 18, 2016.


Residents complained of nausea, headaches, and nosebleeds after a ruptured well at the storage facility began spewing natural gas as well as benzene and other air toxics in October 2015. Residents have since filed hundreds of lawsuits against the company.

The tentative settlement was reached after the California attorney general’s office, the city attorney for Los Angeles, and Los Angeles County filed lawsuits against Southern California Gas.

The settlement was the result of negotiations between the parties. It’s subject to approval by the Los Angeles Superior Court, and, if approved, will resolve all claims alleged in the lawsuits filed by the city, county, and state.

“There is no excuse for what happened,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Wednesday in a statement. “For over four months, this leak exposed our communities to natural gas emissions that resulted in adverse health impacts and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of Californians — displacing two area schools and driving residents from their homes.”

Under the settlement, Southern California Gas will reimburse city, county, and state governments for costs associated with their response to the leak; establish a program with the California Air Resources Board to mitigate the methane emissions from the leak; and fund local environmental benefit projects to be administered by the government parties.

Southern California Gas, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, welcomed the settlement.

“SoCalGas is delivering on our commitment to the Governor and the people of California to fully mitigate the methane emissions from the leak at our Aliso Canyon facility,” Bret Lane, president and chief operating officer for the gas company, said Wednesday in a statement.


Southern California Gas said Monday that it has raised the estimated cost for the massive leak at the Aliso Canyon facility to $1.014 billion. The company warned the estimate may rise significantly due to pending lawsuits, possible fines, and other costs.

Under the settlement, the public health study will be conducted by local and state health departments. Critics of the settlement, including environmental group Food & Water Watch, believe the health study should be conducted by independent experts. The group contends the Los Angeles County and state health departments misled the community around the facility about the health risks from the natural gas leak.

“The tentative settlement announced today fails to adequately benefit the families harmed by the Aliso Canyon gas blowout,” Alexandra Nagy, Southern California organizer for Food & Water Watch, said Wednesday in a statement.

In the statement, Food & Water Watch said that in 2016, a doctor with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health sent a letter to North San Fernando Valley physicians and told them not to do toxicology blood tests and to look for all other explanations for health symptoms other than the gas leak.

According to Food & Water Watch, after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health took over a study of the community, technicians did not test for benzene in dust samples in more than 114 homes. The department did test for benzene in the air and found high levels of benzene, but did not highlight the findings to the community, the group said.

At a Wednesday press conference at the State Office Building in Los Angeles, state and local officials offered details about the tentative settlement. Attorney General Becerra emphasized that the settlement is only one component of ongoing efforts to address the impacts of the massive leak.


He pointed out that lawsuits filed by the residents of Porter Ranch community adjacent to the storage facility are ongoing and are not related to the settlement. State regulators are also continuing their investigations into the cause of the leak and have yet to announce any enforcement actions against Southern California Gas.

The settlement also does not address the fate of the underground storage facility. Most residents in the community, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitchell Englander who represents the community and lives near the storage facility, want Aliso Canyon shut down as soon as possible. At Wednesday’s press conference, Englander said he will not stop demanding accountability from Southern California Gas and that he will continue to work to shut down the facility within 10 years, if not sooner.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has offered a proposal to shut down Aliso Canyon by 2028. But many residents believe that it should be shut down much sooner.

There are more than 400 underground natural gas storage facilities, similar to the Aliso Canyon site, located across the country. Many of them are decades-old. Aliso Canyon is the largest of California’s 12 underground natural gas storage facilities.

In June, the state of California finalized new regulations for underground natural gas storage aimed at protecting health and safety. The effort to update regulations began after the Aliso Canyon leak. The regulations will become effective October 1.

In July 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources cleared Southern California Gas to resume limited injections at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility.