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Brown declares state of emergency at Porter Ranch amid massive gas leak

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered new regulations, including stepped-up inspections and safety measures, for all natural gas storage facilities in California in response to the continuing leak that has displaced thousands of people in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The emergency regulations would require Southern California Gas Co. and other operators of gas storage facilities to conduct daily inspections of wellheads using infrared leak-detection technology, verify the mechanical integrity of wells, measure gas flow and pressure and regularly test safety valves, among other steps.

Each facility would also have to draft a risk management plan that would examine the corrosion potential of pipes and other safety threats.

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The requirements are part of a series of orders issued by Brown as he declared a state of emergency stemming from a leaking well at SoCal Gas' storage facility in Aliso Canyon. For more than 10 weeks a damaged well has released large amounts of planet-warming methane and emitted sulfur-like odors that have sickened residents with nosebleeds, headaches and other symptoms.

Brown's action came after weeks of demands by residents, activists and local officials for the governor to intervene. In the proclamation, Brown cited the “prolonged and continuing duration of this natural gas leak and the request by residents and local officials for a declaration of emergency.”

The governor ordered state agencies to “utilize all necessary state personnel, equipment, and facilities to ensure a continuous and thorough response to this incident.” Unlike with most emergency proclamations, however, he did not suspend state laws, cut red tape or commit more resources or public funds to address the leak.

Brown contends that SoCal Gas should bear all related expenses from the leak. He tasked the California Public Utilities Commission with ensuring that the gas company “cover costs related to the natural gas leak and its response, while protecting ratepayers.”

Evan Westrup, a governor's spokesman, noted that the proclamation does allow the governor to waive state laws if necessary in the future.

The new regulations will apply to a dozen natural gas storage fields across nine counties, according to the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which will issue the new rules.

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SoCal Gas maintains more than 160 of the roughly 340 active gas storage wells in the state, some at other facilities in Santa Clarita, Goleta and Playa del Rey. The Aliso Canyon facility, with a capacity of 86 billion cubic feet, is one of the largest in the nation.

Timothy O'Connor, who directs the California Climate Initiative for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the governor's action “not only recognized the immediate need to stop the massive leak, but sets in motion a longer-term effort to protect people and the environment from methane leakage.”

Briana Mordick, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the emergency regulations “are the right first steps to fixing California's broken oil and gas regulatory system, but a far cry from the overhaul needed to keep Californians safe from the environmental and public health threats from underground natural gas storage facilities and all underground injection projects.”

The governor also ordered the state Air Resources Board to develop a plan by the end of March to “fully mitigate” the leak's emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is many times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Under the plan, the gas company would pay for projects to reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases in the state.

The well is spewing about 30,000 kilograms of methane per hour, according to the most recent estimates available by the Air Resources Board.

As of Dec. 22, the leaking well had released the equivalent of 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide — more greenhouse gas emissions than 330,000 passenger vehicles produce in a year.

The gas company detected the leak on Oct. 23 and is drilling relief wells to try to repair the well after previous efforts failed. The company has warned the leak may not be plugged until the end of March.

In a statement, SoCal Gas Chief Executive Dennis Arriola said “our focus remains on quickly and safely stopping the leak and minimizing the impact to our neighbors in Porter Ranch.”

Brown on Wednesday also ordered state oil and gas regulators to direct SoCal Gas “to take any and all viable and safe actions to capture leaking gas and odorants while relief wells are being completed.”

Seven state agencies are working on the leak, which has drawn criticism, health concerns and lawsuits from Porter Ranch residents and local officials. Los Angeles County supervisors declared a state of local emergency on Dec. 15.

Oil and gas regulators and the state Public Utilities Commission are investigating what caused the well failure and whether it involved any violations by the gas company.

The governor also ordered state regulators to “ensure that Southern California Gas Co. maximizes daily withdrawals of natural gas from the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility for use or storage elsewhere.”

The state had already prohibited SoCal Gas from injecting any more gas into the facility. The company has proposed a number of measures to reduce emissions and odors. Construction crews are installing mesh screens to prevent an oily mist at the leaking well from drifting into Porter Ranch.

Mayor Eric Garcetti joined local residents and activists in welcoming the emergency declaration.

“The order will bring the additional resources and focus we need — to get people back into their homes, restore confidence in the safety of this community, and begin rebuilding quality of life in the neighborhoods affected by the gas leak,” Garcetti said in a statement.

tony.barboza@latimes.com 

MORE ON PORTER RANCH

Why the Porter Ranch gas leak could take months to fix

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:46 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information throughout.

1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with background on L.A. County supervisors' action on Tuesday.

This post was originally published at 12:51 p.m.

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