Aliso Canyon gas leak is a disaster that must not be repeated

An aerial view shows the relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles. A halt to the storage site’s methane leak is expected by the end of the month.
An aerial view shows the relief well at the Aliso Canyon facility above the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles. A halt to the storage site’s methane leak is expected by the end of the month. Earthworks

The Aliso Canyon natural gas leak is ebbing and should be capped in a matter of weeks. Now comes the part that impacts the rest of California: Figuring out how it happened and how to prevent a recurrence, not just in Aliso Canyon but in other underground natural gas storage areas that are scattered throughout the state.

This has been more of an environmental than human disaster. But the Aliso Canyon leak has provided an object lesson in disruption. Thousands of families have been driven from their homes by the foul odor and thousands more have had to be relocated. Schools have had to be moved, and extra police have had to be dispatched to patrol neighborhoods that have been evacuated.

In a meeting with The Sacramento Bee editorial board last week, the chief executive of the utility responsible, the Southern California Gas Co., reiterated its apology, and enumerated steps being taken to make amends. The company has spent more than $50 million to stop the leak and resituate affected families, which is a start. Lawsuits and penalties will drive the tab far higher.

Last week, the South Coast Air Quality Management District sued the gas company, alleging negligence in maintaining the infrastructure at Aliso Canyon, and the California Public Utilities Commission ordered the gas company to pay for an independent probe into the leak’s causes.

Meanwhile, a separate state panel, formed by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources with expertise from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and others, has been overseeing the gas company as the repair and analysis progresses.

U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein want a federal review. Plus, the company has promised to mitigate the leak’s environmental impact with methane capture projects equivalent to the 87.5 million tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gas that have escaped into the atmosphere so far.

The final bill could easily exceed $1 billion. That money will rightfully come off the company’s bottom line, not from ratepayers’ pockets.

But beyond that, what should concern lawmakers is that, so far, the gas company appears to have broken no laws in its operation of the underground storage facility at Aliso Canyon, because the existing requirements for such sites have until now been so lax.

Despite California’s reputation for stiff environmental regulation, and despite that fact that many of these sites have development near them, state and federal oversight of underground natural gas storage in this state is an outdated patchwork. The main state natural gas watchdog, known by the acronym DOGGR, is an underfunded department within a department of a state department.

It’s telling that the leak at Aliso Canyon was discovered by the gas company itself, not state inspectors. And it wasn’t entirely a surprise; the utility knew its infrastructure was aging. Indeed, in 2014, the gas company asked the PUC to let it raise rates to do more comprehensive inspections. With that request still pending, the governor’s emergency order has gotten some of those inspections belatedly underway.

This disaster, as unsettling as it has been, is an opportunity to reboot. Last week, regulators took some early steps, requiring additional safety checks at underground natural gas storage facilities. Legislation also is in the works to address current and future hazards. Gas company officials say they “welcome smart and forward-looking regulation.” We’ll hold them to that, because so do we.