Richard Vogel / AP

A ‘mini-Chernobyl’ in California

Disastrous methane leak shows there is no such thing as a clean fossil fuel

February 17, 2016 1:00PM ET

Los Angeles’ massive methane leak from a natural gas well was labeled a “mini-Chernobyl” by city officials and described as “the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill” by consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. A single hole in the ground spewed more than 200 million pounds of methane out of the Alison Canyon storage field in L.A. County in 16 weeks. Because methane is 84 times as powerful at trapping the sun’s heat as carbon dioxide over 20 years, the torrent of gas, likened to a volcanic eruption, was equivalent at its worst to adding the exhaust of 7 million cars a day. The accident set back California’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases by a year or more.

More disturbing, the leak, caused by a crack in an underground pipe, wasn’t an anomaly; it was business as usual. The accident exposed the collusion between government and the oil and gas industry that led to the mishap, accounting gimmicks used to show progress on climate change and the reality that methane is a dirty energy source rather than a much-hyped bridge fuel to a zero-carbon future.

Now that the well has been plugged, California lawmakers vow there will be stronger regulation and oversight. But that won’t happen as long as fossil-fuel companies have the money to game the system. Since 2014, the oil industry has spent a stunning $42 million in the Golden State to defeat bills that would have reduced pollution and oil consumption. Many scientists say we must eliminate the use of hydrocarbons for energy this century to stave off global cataclysm. That requires the abolition of oil, natural gas and coal corporations. On Feb. 15, two activists dropped a banner above the headquarters of the California Public Utilities Commission, calling on it to shut down all natural-gas storage facilities in the state.

That’s no easy task. But if nothing is done, there will be more calamities like the methane leak, which very clearly was a product of lax regulation and penny pinching. In 1979, the Southern California Gas Co. removed a shut-off valve on the well 8,400 feet underground that could have quickly stopped the leak. An official said it was difficult to find a replacement part and the valve wasn’t required because the well was not categorized as critical, meaning one less than 300 feet from a home. In documents filed with a state agency decades ago, however, removing the critical safety system was described as “Replaced safety system.”

This doublespeak, apparently legal, typified SoCal Gas’ response. One of the scores of lawsuits filed against SoCal Gas, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, alleges it knew five years ago that wells throughout Aliso Canyon were leaking. In December, SoCal Gas was caught overstating normal levels of benzene and underreporting the benzene spraying from the old oil field, the largest natural gas storage facility west of the Mississippi. According to the World Health Organization, there is “no safe level of exposure” of benzene, a “well-established cause of cancer.”

Outside investigators monitoring the leak claim it was twice as large as estimates by SoCal Gas. Residents reported the leak to 911 within a day, along with accounts of nosebleeds and headaches. But SoCal Gas waited three days to inform local officials and residents. Within weeks, residents described other ailments, including nausea, vomiting and respiratory problems. Some 6,400 families living near the storage facility fled because of sulfur odorants, trace amounts of radon and toxins such as benzene, toluene, xylene and methylmercury. Many more people may have been affected, since elevated levels of methane were detected as far as 8 miles away

The Aliso Canyon leak is equal to at least 8 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than five times the 1.5 million tons of California’s reduced CO2 emissions in 2013.

In November, injections of fluid that mixed with hydrocarbons began spitting up from the well and raining down as an oily mist on Porter Ranch, an upscale community of 30,000 below the storage field. Residents found oily residue indoors, but SoCal Gas took seven weeks to install giant screens to filter out the oil and insisted it “does not pose a health risk.” According to the National Institutes of Health the oily mist contains toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.

Despite a disaster with global repercussions, the government response has been sluggish and compromised by the influence of the oil and gas industry. Civil and criminal actions filed by the state and local governments include charges of negligence by SoCal Gas in the design, construction, inspection, oversight and operation of the damaged well.

Public health officials and regulators are on the hot seat for downplaying the risks and allowing the leak to continue. On Jan. 28, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) issued SoCal Gas an abatement order to reduce air emission effects. An SCAQMD board member blasted the order, stating it “would actually do nothing … to abate the nuisance.” The agency said SoCal Gas, which serves 21 million customers and 14 power plants in the region, could keep pumping natural gas into the damaged field to ensure “reliable supplies and deliveries.” In other words, an agency tasked with ensuring air quality and public health enabled the release of more methane rather than risk economic disruption.

One investigation found five members of the SCAQMD board “were appointed by people with significant financial ties to Sempra.” The company’s ties extend to California Gov. Jerry Brown. His sister Kathleen Brown is a director of Sempra Energy, which paid her $188,380 in 2013. Brown claimed there is no conflict of interest, but he waited 75 days to declare an emergency. Additionally, a month before the emergency proclamation, he joined other West Coast governors in boasting that their states “are leading the way in creating and sustaining the clean economy of tomorrow,” with the goal of shrinking carbon footprints up to 95 percent by 2050.

The methane leak has punched a hole through that plan. California has a cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions, but it exempts fugitive emissions like methane leaks. The Aliso Canyon leak is equal to at least 8 million tons of carbon dioxide, more than five times the 1.5 million tons of California’s reduced CO2 emissions in 2013. California’s shady carbon accounting is similar to cap-and-trade schemes in Europe that are notorious for cheating, corruption and cooking emissions books.

The silver lining is the cloud of gas has clarified the drawbacks of methane. Since the fracking boom began last decade, natural gas has been promoted as a way to fight climate change. President Barack Obama lauded it as a “bridge fuel” in his 2014 State of the Union address. But this claim appears to be false: Study after study has found high rates of methane leakage throughout the tangle of 1.6 million miles of pipes connecting drilling, processing, transport, compression, storage, distribution and end uses. Some leakage rates were near or above 3 percent, the point at which methane’s advantage as a lower-carbon energy source is negated.

Even as thousands of residents return to their homes in Porter Ranch, the damage will continue for decades. And it’s only a matter of time before the next Aliso Canyon, the next BP oil spill, the next town obliterated by an exploding oil train. If California wants to be a global leader in fighting climate change, it can start by working to eliminate the fossil fuel industry.

Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian. He is writing a book on the social construction of taste. Follow him on Twitter: @arunindy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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