State issues new rules to avoid future methane leaks

In this Jan. 7, 2016, file photo, a sign declares the boundary line of the Southern California Gas Co. gas fields where a gas well was leaking methane daily near the community of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles.
In this Jan. 7, 2016, file photo, a sign declares the boundary line of the Southern California Gas Co. gas fields where a gas well was leaking methane daily near the community of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles. AP

New state regulations issued in the wake of a massive methane leak in Southern California require a range of safety checks at the state’s 322 active underground gas storage facilities. Environmentalists, however, criticized the new rules for not going far enough in preventing more leaks.

The regulations, issued by the Department of Conservation, require daily inspections of gas storage wellheads, regular testing of safety valves and the setting of maximum pressure limits at wells. Since the leak began on Oct. 23, more than 84 million kilograms of methane have escaped into the atmosphere at Aliso Canyon, the monthly equivalent of greenhouse gases emitted by more than 200,000 cars, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Scott Anderson, senior policy director at the Environment Defense Fund, said he was troubled that the rules didn’t require natural gas storage facility operators to install automatic shut-off systems at wells.

“While this is a step in the right direction, there are a lot of additional issues the agency needs to tackle in order to say it has pursued all appropriate measures to keep Aliso Canyon from happening again,” Anderson said.

Don Drysdale, spokesman for the Department of Conservation and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said the state was looking at such shut-off system requirements. He said that for now, risk management plans will approach fail-safe measures on a project-by-project and well-by-well basis.

“The division is consulting with experts and will be evaluating the efficacy of various fail-safe mechanisms, and the permanent adoption of these regulations will likely include more prescriptive requirements for automatic shut-off systems,” Drysdale said.

The rules were submitted to the state Office of Administrative Law, starting a five-day comment period.

California currently requires shut-off valves only at natural gas storage wells within 300 feet of a residence or 100 feet from a wildlife preserve, a body of water or a road where underground pressure could bring gas to the surface.

The 63-year-old well at Aliso Canyon does not fall under any of those requirements. Well SS-25 is one of 115 at the natural gas storage facility, with another 15 identified as having minor methane leaks, said the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Aliso Canyon, operated by the Southern California Gas Co., is the second-largest gas storage facility of its kind in the United States.

The methane leak has forced the evacuation of thousands of people in and around the Porter Ranch neighborhood and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. The gas company has said it expects to bring the leak under control by late February.

On Tuesday the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is charged with regulating the region’s air quality, sued Southern California Gas, claiming the company was negligent in the way it operated the well and handled the leak.

Stopping the leak has proved challenging since it’s stemming from a well casing 500 feet below ground.

It’s not known if a shut-off valve would have prevented the Aliso Canyon incident, Anderson said. The cause of the leak has not been established.

Anderson said the regulations were long overdue. California surpasses five other states in the number of underground natural gas storage wells but has not revised its rules for such wells since 1984.

“Our take on the condition of this storage field and the condition of other storage fields in California, combined with the magnitude of the Aliso Canyon leak, leads us to think that all wells in storage fields should have these kinds of systems installed,” Anderson said.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz

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