Everyday utility gas leaks outpace Porter Ranch blowout

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As massive as it was, the record-setting release of methane from a ruptured natural gas well near Porter Ranch was actually less than what California utilities lose in the course of a routine business year through leaks in equipment and pipelines.

California's investor-owned gas utilities lost 6.6 billion cubic feet during 2015 from leaky gas meters, pipelines, venting and other routine operations. Those losses of methane are called "fugitive emissions" and are considered to be significant contributors to climate change.

The numbers, compiled by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Air Resources Board (ARB) thanks to a 2014 state law, exclude the volume of gas lost at the Aliso Canyon blowout. That blowout began in late October 2015 and ended in February 2016. At 5.7 billion cubic feet, the leak at Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field was the nation's largest-ever uncontrolled gas release.

The CPUC and Air Resources Board are collecting the information in advance of writing new rules for utilities that could lead to them reducing the fugitive emissions by 40 percent, said Terrel Ferreira, who manages the ARB's greenhouse gas program. The 6.6 billion cubic feet estimate will serve as a baseline measure for future reductions in leaks, assuming it does not change as utilities and the public submit comments on the plan, she said.

The problem with methane is that it is super efficient at capturing heat when it gets into the atmosphere, many times moreso than carbon dioxide, so it's a big contributor to global warming.

"Ultimately we will look at that data and determine how much emission reductions we can get from that source category," Ferreira said. "Ideally we would like to get the 40 percent reduction that is in line with the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Plan."

The ARB supplies the data to the CPUC and analyzes where reductions can be found. The CPUC regulates investor-owned utilities and sets many of their operating rules.

"We know that pieces of equipment out in the field along pipelines and pumping facilities are varying ages, varying technologies, varying matchups in terms of how they fit together and they leak, so that's part of what we're looking at here," said ARB spokesman Dave Clegern.

California's approach to identifying and cutting fugitive emissions is, for the time being, well ahead of the federal government.

Two days after the presidential election, the EPA ordered oil and gas producers to report how much methane they were losing each year. One week ago, the Trump Administration withdrew that order. The governors of Texas and eight other states (not including California) had complained that the data collection, at an estimated cost of $42 million, was too expensive and an onerous requirement.

Gas consumers end up paying for all that lost gas in their regular bills. Utilities regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission include the compensation in their rate-setting requests. Those payments act as a disincentive for utilities to fix their leaks, said Tim O'Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Some public policy analysts say permitting so many leaks to persist unfixed puts an even higher cost on society due to the environmental damage the methane can do.

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