Porter Ranch gas leak: A look at the new California state bills lawmakers have proposed

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California state legislators on Monday rolled out a package of proposed new laws requiring greater scrutiny of the operation of underground gas storage fields statewide, including one that has been the source of a massive methane leak above Porter Ranch and has driven thousands of families to relocate outside the area.

The pressure on Southern California Gas Company to limit or completely shut down operations at its Aliso Canyon gas storage field in the north end of the San Fernando Valley has been unrelenting in the past few weeks. Los Angeles and L.A. County declared emergencies there, finally followed by a state declaration by Gov. Jerry Brown last week.

Adding to the pressure, state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) was joined by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and senators Ben Allen (D-West Los Angeles) and Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) Monday morning to announce a new package of legislation aimed at reducing the risk of future gas storage leaks to nearby residents.

"One of our goals is just two simple words: Never again," Pavley said.

However, a shutdown of the entire Aliso Canyon storage field — 3,600 acres encompassing 114 gas injection wells — isn't immediately feasible because it supplies gas for household heat and cooking for some 21 million Southern Californians, Pavley said. It also supplies gas to large electrical utilities.

"How can we have  a secure energy supply that's local, and also allow building" to accommodate a growing state population, Pavley asked. "That's important."

Among the state bills:

  • SB 875 would impose an immediate moratorium on further natural gas injection or production of gas from aging Aliso Canyon wells until several state departments determine they do not pose a public risk.
  • SB 876 would require SoCal Gas to pay the cost of relocating residents and reducing greenhouse gas emissions out of its profits and not pass the cost onto customers. It would also designate the state Office of Emergency Services to coordinate the response activities of as many as seven other state agencies that previously had been working cooperatively, but independently of each other.
  • SB 877 would add new inspections and safety standards to underground gas storage fields statewide to increase leak prevention. It would increase safety standards of natural gas wells near schools and homes. It would also require utilities to upgrade their leak response and communications plans so first responders and local authorities and residents are better informed. It would require a study of the long-term health impacts of community exposure to the chemicals that add odor to natural gas.
  • SB 878 by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park) would set state targets for carbon, methane and other greenhouse gas emissions and hold industry emitters responsible for meeting those goals.
 

There are 14 underground gas storage fields statewide with some 420 gas injection wells, and some, like those in Montebello, West Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay are not far from homes. Most of those wells are over 40 years old. The leaking well in the Aliso Canyon storage field was installed in 1954 as an oil extraction well, and it was converted to a natural gas injection well in the early 1970s.

Pavley said the state and local authorities should re-examine rules that permitted gas injection wells to be within 300 feet of schools and homes without being equipped with safety valves. SoCal Gas has reported the leaking well, known as Standard Sesnon 25, had no safety valve installed because state law did not require one.

"You need a larger distance," Pavley said. "I don't have the magic number. We know these homes are about a mile away from the well that is leaking; obviously that's not far enough."

At a news conference Monday, de Leon said more oversight is necessary to keep similar leaks from occurring in the future. 

"While leaks of this magnitude are extremely rare, we also need to ensure that the industry as a whole are held to the highest health and safety standards possible," said de Leon. "We also have a very aging infrastructure across the state and a patchwork system of regulations that has contributed to the scope of the current challenge."

Sen. Ben Allen (D-Redondo Beach) said the emergency response was hampered by having some eight state agencies, each with a different area of responsibility, oversee the response. He said a bill designating the state Office of Emergency Services as lead agency will help make response to a future incident more efficient.

On Saturday, hundreds of residents turned out to a South Coast Air Quality Management District hearing in Granada Hills. Some demanded the gas storage field be shut down. The AQMD hearing board is considering approval of an agreement between the gas company and AQMD staff that is short of a complete shutdown.

The agreement calls for SoCal Gas to capture and burn off much of the methane, and to reduce the amount of gas held in the underground sandstone formation. It would also increase the amount of air quality monitoring and install new guidelines for well inspections the gas company does now.

In a written statement, company spokeswoman Anne Silva did not respond with specific information about when and whether the company would burn the methane, only that the company had engineers "designing innovative capture solutions for the leaking gas."

SoCal Gas would oppose a complete shutdown of the Aliso Canyon gas field, she said.

"We need to maintain the gas reserves at Aliso at a functional level to ensure we can meet the demand. Aliso is unquestionably a strategic asset that is vital to the region's economy, and the people who depend on a reliable source of energy from natural gas," Silva said.

The AQMD odor abatement hearing continues on Saturday, Jan. 16.

Silva said that the package of bills represents the start of a legislative process, and that the company would cooperate with the state and other inquiries.

According to the company's Jan. 6 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the leak is the subject of investigations at the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the L.A. County Department of Public Health, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state Air Resources Board, the California Public Utilities Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the L.A. District Attorney's Office and the California Attorney General's Office.

The company said it has already spent $50 million on temporary housing and attempts to plug the well and that its insurance would cover more than $1 billion in losses and damages.

Silva said the company was taking steps to reduce the amount of gas coming from the broken well.
     
"We are decreasing the pressure in the storage field by withdrawing gas from the field and delivering it to our customers, which in turn reduces the amount of gas leaking from the well site and odor reaching the community," Silva said.

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