Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Puts Spotlight on Aging Infrastructure Across the Country

Thu Mar 10th, On Environmental Law, by

Efforts to stop the natural gas leak at the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility in Porter Ranch, California finally have been completed.

On February 18, 2016, the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) confirmed that SoCalGas successfully has permanently sealed and removed from service the well that had been leaking methane and other natural gas constituents. The leak, which was discovered on October 23, 2015, caused thousands of residents to relocate from their homes, some of who complained of health symptoms related to the odorants in the gas. SoCalGas has stated that the focus of their operations will shift to investigating the cause of the leak now that DOGGR has confirmed the well is permanently sealed. Residents should no longer experience short-term health symptoms related to the release of odorants from the gas well and will transition back home.

Now that the immediate concerns of the gas leak have been addressed, however, attention will shift to the broader theme of the country’s aging energy storage infrastructure. U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz toured the Aliso Canyon site in the days before the well was confirmed sealed and met with local, state, and federal politicians and regulatory agencies. Moniz stated that the leak is part of a larger concern about gas storage fields in the U.S. and that an action plan is needed to ensure similar leaks do not occur at other storage sites. He added that infrastructure needs to be improved so it’s smarter and more resilient and that regulations need to be looked at, including requirements for stronger monitoring.

In fact, every day, pipelines across California leak tons of methane into the air. According to one state estimate, the total amount collectively leaked each year likely exceeds the vast volume of methane spewed from the Aliso Canyon facility. Most of the leaks are small and deemed too insignificant to warrant an immediate fix but each represents a potential Aliso Canyon. It is estimated that more than 95,000 metric tons of methane were released into the atmosphere by the Aliso Canyon leak. The volume of methane released at Aliso Canyon is equal to approximately 2.38 million tons of carbon dioxide, or about the amount produced by 500,000 cars in a year.

Moniz provided no details on what might be done on a federal level but noted that dramatically reducing methane leaks across the entire system from production to distribution is a federal priority because of President Obama’s climate goals. Methane accounts for only 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities and its lifetime is much shorter than carbon dioxide but it is more efficient at trapping heat. The comparative impact of methane on climate change is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Moreover, climate change is only one reason officials are trying to get a sense of how big a problem gas leaks may be. As the 2010 San Bruno, California disaster demonstrated, gas leaks sometime explode with deadly results.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and other members of Congress are pushing the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to make national rules governing natural gas fields. Federal lawmakers say PHMSA, within the Department of Transportation, could make “baseline” regulations for gas fields but that this has never happened before as PHMSA has focused on the movement of gas.

In California, state officials have focused on gas leaks in the aftermath of San Bruno. A 2014 law directed the California Public Utilities Commission and the utility companies to develop a system for regularly reporting gas leaks and tracking the amount of gas lost, both to protect public safety and flight global warming. Senator Boxer announced recently that she wanted an agency, such as the Air Quality Management District, to conduct a study to determine what is in the air once natural gas is leaked. Seven state agencies share responsibility over gas fields and eight separate investigations are underway about the origins of the Porter Ranch leak, which may also reveal more problem areas requiring more action.

Understandably, activists are advocating for the permanent shut down of the Aliso Canyon storage facility out of safety concerns. This is unlikely, however, given that it is the largest gas storage facility in the West and provides 21 million people with natural gas across Southern California.

In any event, it is encouraging that the issue of finding, fixing, and preventing gas leaks has been getting more attention across the country. And the Aliso Canyon leak has shone a spotlight on the issue once more.

Our Areas of