A billowing wake-up call from L.A. on greenhouse gas

Mother of two Jennifer Lee reacts while talking to other parents protesting a massive natural gas leak with their children in Los Angeles’ Porter Ranch.
Mother of two Jennifer Lee reacts while talking to other parents protesting a massive natural gas leak with their children in Los Angeles’ Porter Ranch. Los Angeles Times

California is viewed as a national model in regulating greenhouse gas pollution, the one state that is actually moving the needle on climate change.

That’s true to a point. But there are some gaping vulnerabilities in enforcement, and the massive natural gas leak in suburban Los Angeles underscores how far we have to go on oversight.

Southern California Gas Co. officials said last weekend that they finally – finally – are close to locating the source of the methane cloud that has been billowing since October over an underground natural gas reservoir near the affluent community of Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

The reserves, stored naturally inside a repurposed oil field, heat homes in the winter and fuel electrical plants in the summer. The leak appears to be in a narrow pipe used to inject surplus gas thousands of feet deep into rock formations that once served as oil wells.

Because pinpointing the leak and pinching it off is complex and risky, the gas company won’t be able to stop the spewing until the spring. Meanwhile, though it isn’t despoiling beaches or killing wildlife, the disaster is being decried as the worst environmentally since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Infrared images of the catastrophe show its smelly but invisible plume rising like an industrial smokestack. Thousands of families living downwind of its rotten egg smell have had to be relocated. The methane is nontoxic but heat absorbent; the Environmental Defense Fund estimates the leakage will have the same 20-year climate impact as driving 7 million cars a day.

And the fact that a leak of this magnitude happened at all raises all sorts of regulatory questions, starting with why natural gas was even being stored near a planned community of 31,000 people. Nearby homeowners want the site closed, which makes sense in the long term.

But until wind and solar power are sufficiently ramped up, shutting down one of the largest natural gas storage areas in the nation is hardly a pragmatic proposition.

The battle against climate change isn’t only about global conferences in Paris. It’s about mundane acts at the local level, such as stopping giant methane leaks.

And state and local regulatory bodies should have seen this coming. In testimony before the California Public Utilities Commission last year, the gas company’s own storage director raised concerns that the site’s infrastructure was aging. The report warned of problems to come “without a robust program to inspect underground storage wells,” some of which date to the 1940s.

Moreover, environmental advocates have warned for years that methane must be watched because it traps far more heat than carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Yet state records show it has been more than a year since the pipe with the suspected leak was tested. The leak was found by a gas company employee, not state inspectors. And the California Air Resources Board only recently has begun to home in on methane and other short-lived climate pollutants in addition to carbon dioxide.

Clearly, more robust oversight is needed. The Porter Ranch leak alone has upped California’s greenhouse gas emissions from methane by 25 percent per month.

At the very least, state lawmakers should mandate remote sensing and imaging technology on oil and gas operations to more efficiently detect leakage, and state and regional regulators should inspect wells more often.

The situation in L.A. isn’t the only one to reveal room for improvement. The Volkswagen diesel scandal showed what a difference the Air Resources Board can make when it heightens standards for routine testing. A recent disclosure that the Port of Los Angeles was lagging on an action plan to cut air pollution also underscored the importance of tougher South Coast Air Quality Management District enforcement.

The battle against climate change isn’t some lofty thing that happens at global conferences. It’s about countless mundane acts at the local level: getting people out of gas guzzlers, cleaning port pollution, stopping giant methane leaks before they happen.

If we don’t start sweating that far-from-trivial small stuff, California’s model reputation might as well be just talk.