California Attorney General Sues Gas Company for Methane Leak, Federal Action Urged

SoCal Gas faces newest suit by AG Kamala D. Harris, criminal charges from LA prosecutors and calls from a federal agency to ensure safety.

Protesters urge stronger action against So Cal Gas for methane leak
Pressure is growing on So Cal Gas to solve, and be accountable for, the massive leak in suburban Los Angeles. Credit: Reuters

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California’s attorney general sued Southern California Gas Co. Tuesday over the company’s massive ongoing methane leak on the outskirts of Los Angeles. On the same day, members of the state congressional delegation called for federal intervention, and the regulator of U.S. underground gas pipelines and storage said it would propose new safety rules.

In the lawsuit, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris alleges that SoCal Gas violated state health and safety laws by failing to promptly control the release of natural gas and report the leak to authorities. The lawsuit also cites the climate threat posed by the uncontrolled emission of more than 80,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. The release of so much methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, complicates California’s efforts to reduce emissions and contribute to slowing the pace of climate change.

“The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming,” Harris said. “Southern California Gas Company must be held accountable.”

More than 4,000 households have been evacuated in and around Porter Ranch, a neighborhood of northwestern Los Angeles less than a mile from the ruptured well, since the leak was first detected on Oct. 23. Residents have complained of headaches, dizziness, nausea and skin rashes. The amount of methane emitted from the SoCal Gas underground storage facility will have the same impact on climate over the next 20 years as emissions from seven coal-fired power plants, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Tuesday’s lawsuit amends and brings added muscle to a civil suit already filed against the company by the city and the county of Los Angeles. The addition of the state attorney general allows the plaintiffs to press additional claims such as alleging statewide harm through greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Los Angeles Times. Eleven local, state and federal agencies are now either investigating or suing the gas company, according to the paper.

“This lawsuit absolutely strengthens the fight against SoCal Gas,” said Kathryn Phillips, Director of Sierra Club California.  “As we transition to 100 percent clean energy, we shouldn’t just seek to permanently close the Aliso Canyon facility, but rather every oil and gas facility located next to homes and businesses ​throughout California.”

SoCal Gas “will respond to the lawsuit through the judicial process,” said company spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan.

On its website, the company said it immediately notified multiple city, county and state agencies as well as two local schools of the leak. A member of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, however, later told Democracy Now! and other media that they weren’t notified of the leak until about five days after it began.

Hours after the attorney general’s suit was filed, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said she filed criminal charges against SoCal Gas for failing to immediately report the leak to the proper state authorities, alleging the company waited three days after it was detected. SoCal Gas could face fines up to $25,000 for each day that it failed to notify the California Office of Emergency Services. It also could be fined up to $1,000 a day for air pollution violations.

“While we recognize that neither the criminal charges nor the civil lawsuits will offer the residents of Los Angeles County a complete solution, it is important that Southern California Gas Co. be held responsible for its criminal actions,” Lacey said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat who lives in Porter Ranch, said Tuesday he plans to introduce legislation designed to prevent future gas leaks. His Natural Gas Storage Safety Act would require the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to implement federal safety standards for the more than 400 underground natural gas storage facilities across the country.

The PHMSA has regulatory authority over more than half of those storage units, part of the country’s interstate gas pipeline network. The federal agency does not inspect these facilities, deferring instead to state regulators.

“This bill is a backstop,” Sherman said in a statement. “If PHMSA doesn’t adopt regulations using its existing authority, this bill would compel them to act.”

The agency said it is “working to propose new regulations to implement additional safety standards for the underground portions of natural gas storage facilities.”

The PHMSA issued an eight-page advisory bulletin for publication in the Federal Register. It  directs operators of underground gas storage facilities such as the SoCal Gas unit in Aliso Canyon to “inspect and take immediate actions to ensure the safety of underground natural gas storage facilities across the country,” according to Marie Therese Dominguez, the agency’s administrator.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.) spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday on an amendment she introduced with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) that would direct Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to lead a federal review of the Aliso Canyon disaster and the response to the leak. The amendment was added Tuesday night to federal energy legislation.

“This is a public health and public safety issue that’s critical for people not only in my state, but across the nation,” Boxer said. The measure also cites the climate impacts from the leak.

Attorney General Harris was also clear that the leak’s climate risk is a reason for her litigation. Harris has been under political pressure to investigate ExxonMobil over the company’s history of promoting doubt about climate change even after its own scientists warned of the dangers of global warming. In January, the Democratic Party of Los Angeles passed a resolution urging such a probe. Harris, a Democrat, is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.