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California gas disaster highlights patchwork of environmental laws

Many experts call existing regulations inadequate, as state and federal officials appear unable to stop methane leak

Since Oct. 23, 2015, plumes of methane have been spewing out of a storage facility 25 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles in a section of town called Porter Ranch. The disaster has been compared by environmental groups to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The Southern California Gas Co., the local gas utility that owns the site, says it has finally figured out how to stop the leak, though the process could take several more weeks or longer.

Meanwhile, the disaster has placed under scrutiny the patchwork of agencies and laws that cover methane emissions in California and nationally, at a time when the state and the country are attempting to clamp down on the key greenhouse gas, which is far more powerful in trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide. The leak has led to calls for a better regulatory regime on methane storage and transportation and warnings that similar disasters could easily happen elsewhere.

“Especially when the country and particularly California are trying really hard to ratchet down our greenhouse gas emissions, things like this should just not be happening,” said Seth Shonkoff, the director of energy consulting nonprofit PSE Energy and a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley’s environmental science department. “We need to kick up the enforcement and the regulations of these facilities quite a bit.”

The leak began when a pipe leading to a natural gas reservoir more than 8,000 feet below the surface of the So. Cal. Gas–operated Aliso Canyon site ruptured. That leak has released more than 77,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere so far, enough to increase the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent last year, according to the California Air Resources Board. The amount released by the ruptured pipe each day is equivalent to adding 7 million cars to the road, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). 

‘Especially when the country and particularly California are trying really hard to ratchet down our greenhouse gas emissions, things like this should just not be happening.’

Seth Shonkoff

director, PSE Energy

Methane is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, though it lasts for less time in the atmosphere. As natural gas production, mostly via fracking, has increased in the U.S. over the last decade, so have methane emissions. Methane now accounts for about 25 percent of global warming, according to the EDF.

While President Barack Obama has supported the steep increase in natural gas production, he has also promised to curb methane emissions. Last summer, under his direction, the Environmental Protection Agency released new regulations that would require natural gas drillers to clamp down on leaks. The EPA hopes to reduce methane emissions by about 40 percent by 2025.

But activists warn that the EPA’s leakage calculations are significant underestimates. If enough methane leaks out of natural gas infrastructure, the leaks negate any climate benefit gained as the U.S. becomes less reliant on oil and coal while using more natural gas.

Keeping those leak rates down will be nearly impossible, environmentalists say, unless all oil and gas infrastructure, not just new drilling wells, is more regulated.

But as of now, wells like the ones at the storage facility in Porter Ranch are virtually unregulated by the federal government. Methane storage facilities that feed local utilities — which, like the one at Porter Ranch, most often consist of old, depleted oil wells that have been repurposed to hold methane — are most often overseen only at the state level, leading to a patchwork of rules across the nation. There are more than 400 of those storage fields across the country. The So. Cal. Gas–owned field near Los Angeles is the fifth largest in the country, according to the EDF.

“California has one regulatory regime. Texas, Michigan — everywhere has their own,” said Tim O’Connor, the director of the EDF’s California oil and gas program. ”There are 400 facilities dotted across our landscape and 50 regulatory regimes supposedly keeping track of them, and nobody really pays attention to them until there’s a major catastrophe.”

The EPA, which ceded regulatory control over methane storage in the state to California in 1983, said it was responding to the Porter Ranch incident by launching an investigation into the company, but it did not respond to questions about its regulatory authority over methane storage.

O’Connor and others said the argument could be made that because states have different geographies and infrastructure for gas, it would make sense for each state to regulate methane storage fields, but as of now, it seems, those state regulations are inadequate.

“EPA should be doing a lot more to regulate, but they gave regulatory authority to California,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But over the past couple of years, it’s come to light that California hasn’t really been regulating anything at all.”

A recent internal audit found that the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources wasn’t performing frequent enough or adequate inspections of underground storage wells and had a “shortage of division staff, inadequate well and data management systems and a lack of uniform staff training with regard to file handling and data entry.”

The agency did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

While environmentalists have used the Porter Ranch incident as a call for tougher regulations, it’s not clear whether the federal or state government is listening.

“Obama’s methane regulations don’t even cover this. Statewide oversight has been totally absent,” said Alexandra Nagy, a California-based organizer for Food and Water Watch. “The regulators aren’t really willing to hold the industry accountable, but they need to if we’re serious about climate change.”

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