Calif. Lawmakers Rush to Address Methane Leak's Dangers

Several proposed bills address the climate and health impacts of the methane leak in Aliso Canyon.

Homes in the Porter Ranch, Los Angeles, California area below the Aliso Canyon gas storage field are seen on January 9, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

A bipartisan coalition of California state senators introduced wide-ranging legislation to address health and environmental concerns from a massive, ongoing natural gas leak in Los Angeles. The legislation proposed Monday follows last week's state of emergency declaration by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The senators introduced four bills to halt additions of gas into the reservoir, require mitigation, increase inspections and slash methane emissions. The measures came the same day that the Environmental Defense Fund published an analysis showing that few oil and gas companies make information on gas leaks publicly available.

Since Oct. 23, a ruptured gas well at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility has spewed more than 82,000 metric tons of methane, the greenhouse gas equivalent of burning nearly 800 million gallons of gasoline. Schools in nearby Porter Ranch closed after teachers and students complained of nosebleeds, headaches and nausea. More than 2,300 residents of the affluent northwest L.A. neighborhood have evacuated. Engineers are drilling a relief well to plug the leak, work that will most likely require an additional month or more.

"The urgency of this situation cannot be overstated," said Kevin de Leon, the Democratic president pro tempore of the California Senate. "Not only has the ongoing leakage of methane pollution disrupted the lives of residents here in Porter Ranch, it also threatens to undermine our efforts at a statewide level, especially coming back from Paris, where we agreed internationally on carbon offsets as well as methane standards for the world."

De Leon voiced pride at being part of the California delegation to the Paris climate talks last month. The Aliso Canyon leak has since drawn increasing international attention not only for the health of the surrounding community but also for the addition to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Emissions from the well, which have declined significantly in recent weeks, are currently equal to the daily carbon pollution from six coal-fired power plants, or 4.7 million automobiles, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The state senators made their proposals while standing at the entrance to the Aliso Canyon facility. One bill calls for an immediate moratorium on any new injections of gas into the underground reservoir until state agencies and outside experts can ensure that the unit does not pose a risk to public health or safety. 

"We know the well that is leaking dates around 1953 and that there are several dozen other wells that are in that era," said state Sen. Fran Pavley, a Democrat who represents the area of the gas leak. "The structural integrity of the well casings are of concern. They need to be checked."

A second bill would write into law the Democratic governor's executive order that SoCal Gas fund climate mitigation efforts equal to the volume of methane its storage unit released into the atmosphere. The measure specifies that such funding must come from utility profits and not from increased fees to ratepayers. A third proposal calls for increased inspections by state regulators and enhanced well standards, including the installation of subsurface safety valves.

A fourth measure, which was first introduced by Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris , calls for a 40 percent reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry and other polluters in California by 2030.

The bills are still being drafted with completion expected within a week, the senators said. The proposal calling for a moratorium on injecting additional gas into the storage facility is "urgency legislation," meaning it would take effect immediately upon passage. Such legislation requires two-thirds support, requiring bipartisan backing. The other bills are not urgency legislation and need only a simple majority to pass. They would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2017. 

Republican state Sen. Bob Huff expressed support for the bills at Monday's event. Huff said natural gas is a cleaner source of fuel than other fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Underground storage facilities are essential to ensuring a steady supply of a fuel that Californians depend on to generate electricity and heat their homes, he said. However, energy companies must ensure that natural gas can be provided safely without health or safety concerns, Huff said. 

The gas company voiced support for the legislation. "The initiative announced today by Sen. Pavley and other legislators represents the start of a legislative process," SoCal Gas wrote in a prepared statement.

The bills were introduced the same day that a report by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested a lack of reporting by the natural gas industry on its emissions may be seen as a liability by investors. The report looked at the disclosure practices of 40 of the largest oil and gas producing companies in the U.S., as well as 25 gas transmission and storage companies. It found that fewer than one third voluntarily report methane emissions.

None of the companies reviewed by the environmental group disclosed emissions reduction targets. The omissions make it "challenging for investors to effectively gauge materiality, assess performance and manage risk," the report concluded.

Court documents recently obtained by the LA Times show that inspectors found 15 additional leaks at other wells within the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. They were found by California's South Coast Air Quality Management District during inspections on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10. The leaks were relatively minor, "below levels that would constitute a violation of current District rules" and have since been repaired, according to the documents.

As the 12-week-old leak continued to spew methane, residents of Porter Ranch called on state lawmakers to permanently shut down the Aliso Canyon storage facility and enact more stringent laws and regulations to protect Californians.

"We hope our legislators will muster the courage to stand up to the big oil and gas corporations to prevent this type of massive failure from happening again," said Alex Kim, a member of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council and the environmental group Save Porter Ranch. "We look forward to future conversations with the California Legislature about the swift transition to 100 percent clean energy for Los Angeles and California."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the greenhouse gas equivalent of the methane being spewed by the ruptured gas well at Aliso Canyon. The amount of methane leaked since Oct. 23 is the equivalent of burning nearly 800 million gallons of gasoline, not 800,000 gallons.

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