By Anne C. Mulkern, ClimateWire
California must craft a plan to blunt the impact of large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that have spewed into the air from a methane leak in Los Angeles, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said yesterday.
The state also needs to produce emergency rules for all natural gas storage facility operators in the state, Brown said in a proclamation. Those regulations need to mandate at least daily inspections with leak detection technology, he said, and ongoing verification that storage wells are secure.
The governor declared a state of emergency connected to Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, where methane has been leaking since Oct. 23, 2015. The leak has forced evacuations in the Porter Ranch neighborhood, located in the San Fernando Valley.
“Many residents in the nearby community have reported adverse physical symptoms as a result of the natural gas leak, and the continuing emissions from this leak have resulted in the relocation of thousands of people, including many schoolchildren,” Brown said in his order. “Major amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, have been emitted into the atmosphere.”
Brown ordered multiple agencies to take actions, including the California Air Resources Board (ARB); the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC); the Department of Conservation; Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR); and the state Energy Commission.
Brown told ARB that, working with other state agencies, it must develop a program “to fully mitigate the leak’s emissions of methane” by March 31. The program should be funded by Southern California Gas Co., will be limited to projects in California and must prioritize efforts that reduce short-lived climate pollutants.
ARB last month had said that it wasn’t sure yet how it would factor in the leak when it totaled up annual emissions cuts in the state. It said it would have to wait for the leak to be stopped and calculate its total (ClimateWire, Dec. 22, 2015). California has the country’s most ambitious goal to cut greenhouse gas pollution. It wants to slice emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent beneath 1990’s point by 2050.
Dennis Arriola, president and CEO of the utility known as SoCalGas, said that the company has been communicating with Brown’s office and other state agencies since the leak was detected.
“Our focus remains on quickly and safely stopping the leak and minimizing the impact to our neighbors in Porter Ranch,” Arriola said in a statement. “SoCalGas reaffirms our prior commitment to mitigate the environmental impact of the actual amount of natural gas released from the leak. We look forward to working with state officials to develop a framework that will achieve this goal.”
SoCalGas has estimated that repairing the leak could take four months. The utility is digging a relief well and might dig a second one in order to squash the methane being released from below ground.
If the utility’s estimated repair time frame is accurate, by the time it’s capped, the leak will have put 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air, said Tim O’Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s oil and gas program in California.
That would represent 2.3 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, he said. That’s looking at it over a 20-year impact. ARB looks at the hit over a 100-year period, he said, which produces a lower number.
EDF has estimated that over the first 20 years after it’s released, methane is 84 to 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide, the main contributor to man-made climate change.
“This is a state of emergency for the community and the climate and the governor is right to call it such,” O’Connor said in an email after Brown’s declaration. “But this isn’t just a problem for California. Methane leaks from the oil and gas industry every day, and it is a nationwide problem that must be addressed.”
‘A disaster waiting to happen’
Other environmental groups decried what they said was the state’s slow action to deal with the leak.
“This gas leak is one of the largest fossil-fuel disasters in California history, but the governor is only now getting personally involved,” Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Gov. Brown’s slow response is especially disturbing because state regulators’ hands-off approach to underground injection helped set the stage for this catastrophe.
“The state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen, but officials mostly ignored those risks,” she added. “State regulators failed to require necessary safety plans and measures that would have helped prevent this disaster, and now the Brown administration is hastily proposing minimal, short-term solutions. It’s time for a comprehensive reassessment of the huge risks posed by oil and gas storage and production.”
Others, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, also have criticized what they called a lack of rules ensuring the safety of underground wells storing natural gas. Right now, those only have to be inspected every five years, said Briana Mordick, a senior scientist with the group.
“It’s a good start, and I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Mordick said. “But it’s nowhere near the complete overhaul of the regulatory program that’s needed.”
She noted that the DOGGR rules governing natural gas storage wells are the same ones that allowed the injection of produced water from oil and gas drilling to be injected into protected aquifers. DOGGR already is revising its rules to deal with that issue. It’s not clear whether they’ll now look at the integrity of natural gas wells as part of that or separately, Mordick said.
Brown in his proclamation told DOGGR that as part of its emergency rules on natural gas storage, there would need to be ongoing measurement of gas pressure or gas flow within wells; regular testing of all safety valves; minimum and maximum pressure limits for each gas storage facility in the state; and a comprehensive risk management plan for each facility that evaluates and prepares for risks, including corrosion potential of pipes and equipment. DOGGR, CPUC, ARB and the Energy Commission must submit to the governor’s office a report assessing “the long-term viability of natural gas storage facilities in California.”
Lawmaker’s letter demands action
Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) yesterday told six federal, state and local agencies and SoCalGas that he expects “coordination and cooperation in finding a solution to the Porter Ranch gas leak.”
Sherman sent a letter to U.S. EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, California’s DOGGR, CPUC, the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles County and SoCalGas.
“I am asking that each of you put aside for the moment whether a particular agency has jurisdiction to investigate here,” Sherman said. “My immediate concern is stopping this leak as quickly as possible.
“The Aliso Canyon Storage Facility currently holds upwards of 137 billion cubic feet of natural gas,” he added. “We need to immediately investigate the best means to draw down this gas, and thus stop leakage much more quickly than the current plan.”
Sherman suggested that SoCalGas work with other electric generation facilities “to cause them to withdraw and to use natural gas at the same rate as if it was the hottest day in August or coldest day in January,” he wrote. “That electricity, which could not be used locally, could be sold through the grid, given away to electric utilities beyond their needs for free, or simply grounded.”
SoCalgas is part of Sempra Energy, which also owns San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
Brown in his proclamation said CPUC and the Energy Commission should “take all actions necessary to ensure that Southern California Gas Company maximizes daily withdrawals of natural gas from the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility for use or storage elsewhere.”