While the Southern California Gas Co. continues its work on a relief well that will, hopefully, stop the three-month-long gas leak near Porter Ranch, lawmakers are beginning on the next essential step: developing regulations to reduce the risk of another massive leak from an underground natural gas storage facility that will once again sicken people and wreak havoc on the environment.
The human and financial impact from the current leak has been tremendous. Some 2,600 families have temporarily fled their homes because of the sickening smell of the gas, and 2,700 more families have applied for relocation. Two schools have shifted to new campuses farther from the leak, causing turmoil for students and teachers. Some small businesses are struggling to stay open as customers relocate. The utility said in December that it had spent $50 million trying to fix the leak at its Aliso Canyon storage field and to move residents. The final price tag, including penalties, claims and litigation expenses, could easily exceed a billion dollars — which, Gov. Jerry Brown has said, should come from the utility's profits, not ratepayers.
Elected officials, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, have compared Porter Ranch to a crime scene, but state officials have said it doesn't appear that the utility violated any regulations. (There is still an ongoing investigation.) Gas company officials have said they followed state law governing underground storage wells, and even went beyond the requirements. That's the problem. State regulations have been grossly inadequate to protect the public and the environment. Federal authorities have been hands-off as well. That's left companies to decide how much they will or won't invest in keeping their gas fields safe and modern.
California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which regulates the drilling and operation of oil and gas wells, has relied on outdated safety standards, infrequent inspections and minimal oversight. The agency required companies to administer pressure tests once a year, but those tests only identify wells that are already leaking, not wells that are at risk of leaking. Experts say the state should have required more regular testing with modern technology, such as ultrasound, that could indicate well weaknesses. Likewise, the leaking well at Aliso Canyon didn't have a working shut-off valve, which could have stopped the flow of gas. But such a valve wasn't required by law.
The gas company knew its aging storage equipment was failing at an increasing rate and posed a safety and environmental hazard. In 2014, the company sought permission from the state to raise rates to fund a proactive inspection and maintenance program. (That request is still pending.) The cost of the program would have been $30 million a year for six years — a bargain compared with the cost of the leak. Brown issued an emergency order this month mandating that California's gas storage facilities do many of the things the utility had proposed to do, including daily inspections and ongoing verification that wells are in good condition.
Brown's order was a start, but lawmakers led by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) have proposed stringent new safety regulations for all 14 underground natural gas storage facilities in the state. Senate Bill 887 would phase out antiquated wells (the leaking one is more than 60 years old); require shut-off valves in all gas storage wells; ban new or existing wells within a certain distance of homes or schools, and require continuous air monitoring for methane leaks. Gas company leaders say they've spoken with Pavley and they support smart, forward-looking regulations, though they haven't yet taken a stand on the bill. In the past, oil and gas interests have sometimes lobbied against proposals for greater transparency and oversight of their industry. Hopefully the Porter Ranch crisis will give lawmakers the backbone and sense of urgency to vote "yes."
The Porter Ranch fiasco should also prompt stronger regulations for the 400 underground gas storage fields across the country, not only because of the safety hazards involved but also because methane is a potent heat-trapping gas that has a huge impact on climate change. While the Aliso Canyon leak is believed to be the most catastrophic release in state history — it's now the single largest source of methane emissions in California — the cumulative impact of smaller, recurring leaks at facilities around the country pose a serious threat to the nation's efforts to curtail global warming.
The federal government has traditionally allowed state agencies to handle storage regulation, and the result has been spotty oversight. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is now looking at proposing the nation's first minimum safety standards for underground natural gas storage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants oil and gas companies to monitor and prevent methane leaks at new facilities; environmental groups want the agency to regulate existing facilities, like the Aliso Canyon field, as well.
Lawmakers and regulators would be making a grave mistake — potentially even a deadly one, given the possibility of explosions posed by malfunctioning natural gas storage facilities — if they don't learn from the Porter Ranch gas leak. The state and federal government need to impose strict testing, monitoring and safety measures on underground gas storage facilities.