Tighter air board rules on gas industry please Porter Ranch evacuees

Coming off a four-month natural gas blowout in Porter Ranch, the California Air Resources Board approved a preliminary plan Thursday that would require utilities and gas companies to check equipment more often for leaks.

The air board’s proposal was in development well before a protracted leak at a Southern California Gas Co. facility in the San Fernando Valley spewed nearly 100,000 tons of methane and forced 8,000 families to flee their homes.

The regulation would not necessarily prevent an accident like the one at Porter Ranch, but several residents from the city traveled to Sacramento to tell the air board that the industry needs more oversight.

“They’re aware these facilities are in shambles. They could have been doing this a long, long time ago, so stop bellyaching about it,” said Jason Hector, 41, one of several Porter Ranch parents who spoke at the board meeting.

Facing litigation, Southern California Gas representatives at the meeting did not respond to accusations about Porter Ranch.

The board originally devised the plan two years ago to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. It takes aim at the pipelines, tanks and drilling equipment that are responsible for about 15 percent of the state’s methane emissions. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The proposal won’t take effect until 2018, and the board has to vote on it one more time next year to give it final approval.

The proposal would require companies to check above- and below-ground equipment for leaks and to make repairs quickly.

The plan adds “a little more scrutiny” to standards that some regional air quality control boards already have, said Larry Greene, chief executive of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. His district oversees several hundred gas wells.

Board members moved forward despite appeals against the measure from the gas industry and some of the state’s largest utilities. Industry representatives argued that they don’t have the technology yet to meet part of the air board’s standards.

They also said the proposal appears to be more expensive than the air board’s estimates, which is problematic for power companies whose rates are set by the Public Utilities Commission. Power companies also want assurances that they won’t have to shut down operations entirely to fix a leak.

Jenifer Pitcher, a San Joaquin Valley representative from the Western States Petroleum Association, said the proposal could make Kern County drillers shut down their fracking wells.

“What this regulation will do is add to that cost of producing a barrel of oil,” said Les Clark, vice president of the Independent Oil Producers Agency. He said the industry has shed 3,000 jobs in the past 18 months, since oil prices started falling. “That means probably more jobs lost.”

Air board members noted the agency will iron out details with industry representatives and regional air boards before the next vote.

“It’s expensive and annoying to have to look for leaks all the time, but we have been seeing that there are a lot of leaks,” said board Chairwoman Mary Nichols.

Environmental advocates and parents who said they worried about the health effects of gas leaks on their children outnumbered industry representatives at the meeting.

“There are many sick children with asthma,” said Felipa Trujillo of Shafer, one of several Kern County residents who spoke. “I feel the air is most contaminated.”

Several Porter Ranch residents demanded more aggressive regulations. They said they planned to meet with lawmakers later in the day to lobby for bills that would hold Southern California Gas accountable for the leak.

“Our way of life was taken away for four months,” said Cheri Derohanian, a Porter Ranch mother of two. When neighborhood children had birthdays, “they couldn’t even have a decent party because all the kids were dropping out of school.”

“This is bad for public health. This is bad for our air and our climate,” she said. “What we seek is that you strengthen the rule.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton