By now, you may have heard about the massive natural gas leak in Southern California, which has been ongoing since late October; then again, given the dearth of major media coverage, you very well may not have.
It is an environmental catastrophe that The Guardian has called “the climate equivalent of the BP disaster.” [http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/04/california-natural-gas-leak-methane-climate-change-old-infrastructure] GAP knows this to most definitely be the case given our critical ongoing investigation in the Gulf region into the disaster which has garnered significant media attention and attracted over 25 whistleblowers exposing significant environmental and public health threats. Over 80,000 metric tons of natural gas – which is primarily composed of methane, a potent greenhouse gas – have been released from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site, which is owned by the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas). This represents a substantial percentage of California’s total GHG emissions – as well as a threat to Porter Ranch, a community located near the site, due to other hazardous substances present in natural gas. But if this toxic cloud has a silver lining, it is that California might finally bring its legal stance on fracking and natural gas up to par with its other environmental policies.
California is known for its strong environmental laws – such as for auto emissions, the standards of which were strengthened to combat growing air pollution issues in car-dependent Los Angeles. So why does the state allow outdated storage facilities to house billions of cubic feet of natural gas near fault lines and populated areas? Why has the state been so lax in requiring companies like SoCalGas to keep their facilities safe? What will the state learn from this? What will other states (and the federal government) learn from this
It seems to take a disaster to get people’s attention (again, hello mainstream media?) and to get laws passed. That may be why California has not taken strong action against fracking until recently when the state banned new permits for offshore fracking. The fact that fracking is still taking place in several California counties, however, is dumbfounding, not only because of California’s usually good record on environmental regulation, but because California is earthquake central, and the combination of fracking, gigantic gas storage facilities, and the San Andreas Fault should be a frightening prospect to anyone paying attention.
But at least – ‘thanks’ to the Aliso Canyon leak – the government of California has begun to strengthen some of its regulations on storage facilities, as well as requiring SoCalGas to foot the bill for relocating affected residents. The leak may – or may not – soon be under control, but the incident shines a bright light (for those whose eyes are open) on the problems with natural gas generally: it is not an improvement over other fossil fuels.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, but that benefit is only seen when the fuel is put to use. The glut of natural gas that fracking has provided means massive amounts are being stored in facilities like Aliso Canyon. Therefore, when a leak occurs, incredible amounts of gas may escape – as in, enough to keep spewing forth for three months and counting.
Not only is the atmospheric impact of the current leak considerable (in three months the well had already released “more greenhouse gases than any other facility in California,” and already “more than doubled the methane emissions of the entire Los Angeles Basin and surpassed what is released by all industrial activity in the state.”), but the health impact on the people of Porter Ranch demonstrates two important things: first, SoCalGas, whose response to the leak has been active but conservative, is disingenuous when it comes to the threat the leak creates to local residents; second, for those who still remain unconvinced that climate change is an issue that must be addressed, how do you feel about toxic gases in populated areas?
In addition to added odorants, natural gas also commonly contains some back-flow from fracking chemicals. These chemicals are legally kept hush-hush as industry secrets, but may include known carcinogens, such as benzene. And yet, on SoCalGas’ website, the leak is described more as an inconvenience than a health risk, and the focus is on the unpleasant smell of the odorants rather than the hazardous chemicals being inhaled by the locals. With residents complaining of nausea, headaches, and other effects, SoCalGas seems rather blasé about what its negligence has done to Porter Ranch.
Negligence? Clearly, the failure to replace a valve – in 1979 – which would have allowed the current leak to be easily controlled seems a negligent act. However, SoCalGas has a simple defense: they were not legally obliged to provide such a valve unless the nearest residence was closer than Porter Ranch. So, is the problem with the company, or with the regulation?
SoCalGas has done what it is legally required to do. In terms of prevention, it clearly wasn’t enough. Where regulations are lax, it is meant to be a sense of obligation to the public – or, more likely, to the shareholders – that makes a corporation work hard to avoid accidents. SoCalGas, by only doing what the law required, failed to protect the public.
The problem is, without strong regulation, companies will get away with the bare minimum. And, of course, the fossil fuel industry, like so many other industries, fights and lobbies to be sure the bare minimum is as bare and minimal as can be. In this case, the bare minimum was clearly not enough to avoid disaster.
With stronger regulation, not only are companies legally obliged to protect the public (or at least legally accountable for failure to do so), but whistleblowers then have firmer ground on which to stand in order to bring problems to light. If a SoCalGas employee in 1979 had pointed out that failure to replace the valve could result in a massive gas leak, he or she would have been tilting at windmills. If the valve had been legally required, however, either SoCalGas would have replaced it, or an attentive employee could have blown the whistle on the company’s failure. It is a case in point for why both better regulation and better whistleblower protection are needed in the energy industry.
The lapse in regulation might be understandable, in that the natural gas industry was very different in 1979 than it is today. However, the failure of the government and of industry to keep apace of the requirements posed by increased production, storage, and use of natural gas is rather astounding – particularly given California’s overall environmental record, and the growing concerns over fracking.
On that note, how can some of the major concerns associated with fracking – namely increased seismic activity and potential risks to water supplies – not have affected the regulation of gas storage facilities like Aliso Canyon? These are not man-made containers; these are massive holes drained of oil and gas deposits and, with some modification, refilled with natural gas. (The history of the site is described here.)
The Aliso Canyon facility sits next to and provides gas to Los Angeles. It is the second largest such facility in the United States, with a capacity of up to 86 billion cubic feet. To operate such facilities near a major fault line (did they forget that LA is prone to earthquakes?) should demand extraordinary regulation – not regulation that hasn’t been updated over the course of several decades of dramatic growth in the natural gas industry.
Local residents are understandably most concerned about health risks posed to them directly. Many have vacated, leaving their properties to devalue while they seek air that is less likely to harm them and their children. The policy concerns in this regard are clear: immense stockpiles of hazardous and volatile substances should be kept away from populated areas. Duh. So it is a relief that California has begun the process of updating its relatively lax regulation of the natural gas industry. It’s a pity the state couldn’t find the will or manpower to address the issue before the leak began.
California – and every other state, and the federal government – must start thinking about natural gas not in terms of viability, but rather liability. The risks associated with fracking go beyond the point of production; if the benefit in natural gas use comes through its consumption, the advantage is lost through the rest of its lifecycle – especially when mistakes, accidents, poor regulation, and poor maintenance allow massive leaks to affect local populations and the global atmosphere. Natural gas, like coal and oil, poses threats simply not present with renewable energy.
Unlike the BP-Deepwater Horizon disaster, no massive explosion and loss of life kicked off the Aliso Canyon fiasco. But if we are cynical enough to need a catastrophe to bring about change, one would at least hope any catastrophe would do.
— UPDATE: The leak at Aliso Canyon was brought under control on February 11th, and permanently plugged on February 18th, 2016. Well ahead of the worst-case estimate (which would have been sometime in April), but nonetheless after over 110 days, and over 100-million barrels of gas released into the environment.
CSPW Contributor Adam Arnold worked with GAP’s clinical program while earning his J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, is a member of the Maryland Bar, and has an LL.M. in International Environmental Law and International Organizations from American University’s Washington College of Law.