Porter Ranch methane leak a problem long in the making

Southern California Gas Co. botched its handling of the methane leak in Porter Ranch, and the company and regulators need to answer for it.

Porter Ranch residents and those watching from a distance are rightly outraged. For too long, California hasn’t been tough enough on private utilities like SoCalGas.

A package of bills pending in Sacramento would go some way toward remedying that.

But in the meantime, it seems the news keeps getting worse.

There are fears that efforts to stem the months-long methane leak could actually cause a blowout. Regulators are looking at the possibility that fracking contributed to the leak. The Associated Press reported that SoCalGas was under-reporting levels of the carcinogenic benzene. (SoCalGas called it “an oversight.” It’s a failure.) On top of all that, it turns out the original environmental documents drafted to build Porter Ranch made no obvious references to the nearby storage wells.

It’s a long list of missteps and errors that underscore one question: How was the situation allowed to become so precarious?

The laws governing underground natural gas wells — which dot the state — are out of date and inadequate to protect residents, and neither the Public Utilities Commission nor the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources has exercised sufficient oversight.

The end result was the stunning release of methane, a greenhouse gas, discovered in October. The Environmental Defense Fund estimated the leak, at its peak, equaled the daily emissions of 7 million vehicles.

Some progress has been made in dealing with the leak, though there is no clear end in sight. Meanwhile, there are promising signs on other fronts.

On Wednesday, the South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board will meet for a third time to consider proposed actions in response to the leak, including forcing SoCalGas to permanently shut off the well and provide data that should be available already — such as how much natural gas is in the underground reservoir.

SCAQMD should move swiftly, but that’s just the start.

There’s an important initiative by Sen. Fran Pavley, who represents Porter Ranch, along with Senate President Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, and Sens. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. The policymakers introduced a package of bills that would put a moratorium on natural gas injection or production at the site, ensure SoCalGas pays for the relocation of residents, and add new inspections and safety standards to underground gas storage fields. It would also seek to add limits to short-term climate pollutants such as methane.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s long-awaited call for a state of emergency has brought some much-needed emergency regulation calling for state officials to verify the mechanical integrity of all gas storage wells and to monitor gas pressure.

Rep. Steve Knight, who has stayed largely quiet on the issue, meanwhile showed up at SCAQMD meeting last week.

Brown and Knight were late to the conversation, but after thousands of residents were evacuated and outrage spread throughout the community, politicians who were largely publicly absent have come around. It’s a welcome change.

Fixing Porter Ranch, and safeguarding against problems elsewhere, means all hands on deck.

Origionally published in the Los Angeles Daily News.


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