By Nicola Peill-Moelter, Ph.D. / SanDiego 350.org
The massive leak at the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility is a stark example of why natural gas is a significant health and safety risk and not a bridge fuel to our clean energy future. The facility, the second largest in the U.S., stores vast amounts of natural gas at high pressure in underground wells once used for oil extraction more than fifty years ago.
On or about October 23rd a rupture in a 60-year old injection well pipe a thousand feet underground initiated the leak. At its peak the leak had an estimated rate of one-hundred twenty-five thousand pounds of methane per hour. To date, the cumulative emissions from this single source is equivalent to 25% of the state’s annual methane emissions from major sources like agriculture and landfills, equivalent to the annual climate pollution of almost half a million cars.
This is clearly counterproductive to Governor Brown’s ambitious state goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% or more by 2030. To address this he has called for a plan that will offset emissions from the leak through projects funded by SoCalGas that reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane. Without this direct action from the state, SoCalGas would not be required to fund these projects because, inexplicably, methane leaks, even ones this size, are exempt as “fugitive emissions” under California’s climate change regulations.
The main component of natural gas is methane, an odorless, colorless gas with a 20-year heat trapping capacity over eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Mercaptan and other odorants are added to the gas infusing a pungent rotten-egg smell to help indicate leaks. With concentrations of this potent mixture measured as high as 1,000 times ambient levels, Porter Ranch residents are suffering health effects including nausea, nosebleeds, and headaches. Thousands of families have had to evacuate their homes and the LA Unified School Board voted unanimously in December to close their two schools, necessitating the relocation of 1,900 students and staff. Company officials and local health regulators claim there is nothing to be concerned about.
According to Save Porter Ranch (an organized group of concerned residents), SoCalGas reacted slowly, waiting several days to admit to the existence of the leak, and more than a week before publicly acknowledging the leak and notifying the health department and elected officials. A response by local and state officials was slow to come as well. It took over a month for the health department to declare a health emergency and Governor Brown did not declare a state of emergency until January 6 under significant pressure from Porter Ranch residents and LA elected officials.
There’s speculation he was slow to react because Kathleen Brown, his sister, is on the board of Sempra Energy, which owns SoCalGas (as well as SDG&E). And while the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) ordered a permanent shutdown of the leaking well, it made no such order for the other 114, similarly antiquated, wells at the facility, ignoring the very real risk that another such rupture could occur again.
According to experts, early efforts to seal the well actually worsened the risk of a catastrophic blowout which would have resulted in significantly more emissions that would have been even harder to contain and further increased the already extreme risk of explosion and fire. Recently, in response to an order by the SCAQMD to mitigate the emissions, SoCalGas proposed a plan to divert and incinerate some of the leaking gas.
The plan was scrapped after residents and AQMD officials expressed extreme concern about the risk of explosion. No kidding, smart move. With no well-thought out emergency response plan in place, SoCalGas appears to be shooting from the hip, seemingly careless of the risk to which it’s exposing LA County residents and the climate.
The rupture was likely a result of the age of the well pipe and the questionable practice of injecting gas through both the 7”-diameter casing (outer shell) and 2 7/8”-diameter inner tubing at the same time. These aging pipes are under very high pressure, about 2,600 pounds per square inch (think SCUBA tank pressure). Not surprisingly, efforts to stop the leak have failed. The infrastructure at this facility and natural gas facilities and infrastructure across the country are more than forty years old and accordingly vulnerable to leaks and other failures.
In fact, at the time these facilities were built and the wells were drilled, few regulations existed including requirements for leak monitoring and emergency safety valves which could have put an abrupt end to the Aliso Canyon leak before it became an issue. Aliso Canyon is one of 400 storage fields across the country likely in a similar state, including three in northern LA, one in Santa Barbara County and ten in northern California east of San Francisco. Yet surprisingly today there is no national minimum safety standard for these operations.
Siting of fossil fuel infrastructure and operations is also an environmental justice issue. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities have historically suffered the brunt of health and pollution impacts because that’s often where oil and gas companies operate with impunity (PDF). Or in remote areas where there’s no one to complain. As a result there’s been little political pressure to address these issues. This discriminatory practice is the basis of a recent lawsuit filed against the city of LA. But Porter Ranch is an affluent community whose voices were heard by the LA City Council which acted on behalf of its constituents, bringing to bear the forces of the state. As extreme oil and gas operations such as fracking and acidization proliferate, extending the tentacles of their reach, more and more communities are at risk and will experience firsthand what other communities have long suffered without attention.
In response to the Aliso Canyon disaster, earlier this month LA County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to Governor Brown and legislative leaders urging them to modernize inspection technology and an outdated regulatory process, and calling for the state to set up an independent panel to oversee the inspection and repair of similar facilities across the region. Last week three bills were introduced in the California State Senate. Senate Bill 886 would impose a moratorium at Aliso Canyon on new natural gas injections and extraction from vintage wells until it can be determined by state regulators and independent experts that they pose no public health and safety risks.
Senate Bill 888 would require SoCalGas to pay from its profits for housing, relocation and emergency response costs, as well as mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, and prohibiting the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) from allocating these costs to ratepayers. Finally, Senate Bill 887 would require inspection of all of California’s fourteen underground natural gas storage facilities within the next 12 months and at least annually thereafter; phase-out of antiquated wells; enhanced safety standards such as installation of subsurface safety valves, use of leak-detection technology and the development of rigorous response plans.
Why weren’t these common sense regulations in place long ago? Why is spewing this amount of natural gas into the air legal under current regulations? SoCalGas itself understood the vulnerability of its aging infrastructure and the need to upgrade its monitoring and safety equipment, seeking permission from the CPUC in 2014 to raise rates to pay for it, a cost of $30 million over six years. A cost that’s a rounding error compared with the ultimate cost of the leak to residents, to California, and even, ironically, to SoCalGas.
It is clear that more regulation, oversight and inspection of fossil fuel operations is urgently needed. But the broader question is, rather than investing hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade and expand natural gas extraction, transmission and storage infrastructure, shouldn’t we instead invest this money now to make the inevitable shift to renewable energy that the world acknowledges is urgently necessary?
As the Aliso Canyon leak demonstrates, natural gas comes with significant health and safety risks that renewables don’t share. And while natural gas has been trumpeted as a “bridge fuel” that’s better than coal, the reality is that methane’s much higher heat trapping capacity coupled with leakage all along the natural gas supply chain from extraction to transmission to end use makes the climate impact of natural gas worse than coal. If we are to adhere to climate scientists’ target of staying below 1.5 degrees C of warming, doesn’t it make sense to use that investment to build out renewable energy infrastructure rather than sinking hundreds of billions of dollars into new and upgraded natural gas infrastructure that will be rendered unusable within a decade or two?
If what’s happening at Aliso Canyon and Porter Ranch concerns you, call or write your state legislators and urge them to support SB 886, SB 887 and SB 888. You can find contact information for your state representatives here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov
If you want to become involved in getting local and state officials to act on climate change or ban extreme oil and gas activity in California contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Nicola Peill-Moelter is a member of SanDiego350, a grassroots climate change action organization. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering science from Caltech, a B.E. in chemical engineering from Manhattan College and serves as the sustainability officer at a Fortune 500 company. Nicola lives in Poway with her husband, Eric, where they strive to minimize their environmental footprint. She has come to realize that action on climate change needs to happen on a major scale through collective action at the personal, community, corporate and governmental levels.