Soapbox

California must do more to prevent natural gas leaks

Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, speaks after testifying last month to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about an uncontrolled gas leak that has sickened residents in his neighborhood.
Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, speaks after testifying last month to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors about an uncontrolled gas leak that has sickened residents in his neighborhood. Associated Press

The October well failure at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch continues to spew more greenhouse gases than all oil and gas sources across the state combined. But this is just the tip of a very big iceberg.

The state’s energy infrastructure – including countless active and abandoned oil and gas wells – is emitting more than 6 million tons of methane into the air each year. In Los Angeles alone, there are 3,000 wells, in affluent and poor neighborhoods alike. Publicly available reports show the state’s two largest utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co., routinely allow tens of thousands of natural gas leaks to persist in their distribution systems, many for decades.

What’s being done to fix all this? Not nearly enough.

Last year, the Legislature passed two bills that got tough on methane pollution. A proposed regulation on oil and gas methane was under consideration at the California Air Resources Board, and studies on methane were being churned out by the state’s energy agencies with regularity. Even the governor referred to the importance of cutting methane pollution in his January inaugural address.

But after this bold start, efforts have ground to a near halt. At the Air Resources Board, a draft rule would allow oil and gas operators to inspect equipment only annually instead of a more rigorous and cost-effective quarterly schedule.

Given our aging oil and gas infrastructure, leaks and well blowouts will be an increasing challenge. That means inspections and maintenance must be performed diligently. Unfortunately, proposals to update existing requirements push against years of inertia in the industry. Moreover, California has separate regulatory agencies overseeing its utilities, energy planning, oil and gas production and air quality. Jurisdiction is split between local, state and in some cases federal authorities. That’s a lot of moving pieces.

Strengthening methane rules will be no easy task, though three clear opportunities stand out:

▪ First, the California Public Utilities Commission should develop strong regulations to reduce leaks from local natural gas systems. It should require utilities to use the latest technology to find and track leaks and prioritize repairs, even when leaks don’t pose an imminent safety hazard. It should also demand a full accounting of gas that is lost through leaks. And it needs to ensure that any new rules cover subsurface leaks in storage systems, such as Aliso Canyon.

▪ Second, the Air Resources Board must send oil and gas companies a clear message that they must inspect and maintain equipment every quarter. These inspections are shown to reduce methane emissions at an extremely low cost while also reducing other toxic air pollutants. A strong rule should be put in place before the end of next year so it can be implemented in 2017.

▪ Finally, in response to the Aliso Canyon nightmare, the state and SoCal Gas need to immediately reduce the risk to residents and the environment and develop a long-term plan. The city of Los Angeles is now suing the utility, and we applaud its engagement.

There is a lot riding on California getting it right on methane, which is responsible for 25 percent of global warming. With Gov. Jerry Brown at the Paris climate change conference, and the fumes of Aliso Canyon still spewing into Los Angeles air, the choice is clear.

Tim O’Connor is director of the California Climate Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund. He can be contacted at toconnor@edf.org.

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