Nearly a year after the record-breaking rupture at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles, which prompted thousands of people to evacuate and released 97,100 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, a White House task force has issued a report on the state of the country’s natural gas storage.
It’s a troubling picture.
The report found that “while incidents at U.S. underground natural gas storage facilities are rare, the potential consequences of those incidents can be significant and require additional actions to ensure safe and reliable operation over the long term.” The Aliso Canyon leak, for instance, can be blamed on both poor design and lack of monitoring.
“This new report accurately describes the serious safety and environmental hazards involved with these crumbling links in our energy infrastructure.”
The report offers 44 recommendations to protect health and the environment from the risks of natural gas storage and was authored by staff from the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, the EPA, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and other agencies.
“This new report accurately describes the serious safety and environmental hazards involved with these crumbling links in our energy infrastructure. The challenge now is taking action,” said Mark Brownstein climate and energy vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“We need stronger safety standards at both the state and federal level, and to make sure that state and federal officials are working together to close the gaps in the safety net,” he said.
Currently, there are no federal guidelines to regulate natural gas storage, even as it has become a bigger and bigger portion of America’s energy portfolio. The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration is expected to issue an interim final rule regarding natural gas storage later this year.
In the case of Aliso Canyon, the task force found that California’s regulatory system was not working. “The inspection program, monitoring, and risk management plan for this well appear to have been inadequate to ensure safety. For example, well logs indicate that the majority of wells at the facility had not been recently evaluated for integrity,” the report says.
Specifically, the facility had “single point of failure” design — meaning that if one part failed, there was no backup to prevent a leak. It is “likely” that a second barrier would have prevented the leak, the report says.
Operators at the Aliso Canyon facility have been publicly criticized for not replacing a safety valve that was removed in the 1970s. The valve was not required by state law, although lawyers for local residents are expected to argue that it was necessary for public safety.
It’s unlikely Aliso Canyon was the last natural gas leak the country will see. The rise of fracking has allowed operators to access more natural gas, and at less of a cost. And as power plant operators try to get away from the most dirty fuels, such as coal, natural gas has provided a “cleaner” alternative.
Energy providers are in the process of building out a massive amount of natural gas infrastructure, including pipelines, storage facilities, and export terminals.
Unfortunately, burning natural gas still releases large amounts of CO2, and the gas itself is made up of mostly methane, which traps heat 86 times more effectively than CO2 over a 20-year-period. Many environmentalists have pointed out that this so-called bridge fuel is actually a bridge to a much warmer future.
In fact, the 16-week-long Aliso Canyon leak added as much CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere as half a million cars would add over a year. It also cost Southern California Gas between $250 million and $300 million. The company is facing several lawsuits and criminal charges over the spill and has already settled with the county for $4 million over failing to properly notify officials.
There are some 400 natural gas storage facilities across the country. Roughly half of them, including the Aliso Canyon facility, were built before 1970.