It's been a nerve-wracking week for residents of Southern California's exclusive Porter Ranch community. On Monday, after state officials confirmed that the methane gas leak that forced some 10,000 residents to move out of their homes was now fixed, homeowners began the difficult process of moving back to Porter Ranch. Many, however, have expressed deep concern that the natural gas wells just outside their community haven't been maintained and are unsafe.
"I am very terrified to go home,” one homeowner told a California state assembly committee on Monday.
Hearing that concern, this week the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee took the first of several steps to ensure that the 115 wells at the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility would not be reopened until the state was satisfied that they were safe. In a 13-0 vote, the panel moved to extend a moratorium on the operation of the Aliso Canyon facility.
In January, state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) proposed a bill to close the wells until "a rigorous safety review of all wells" could be conducted. SB 380 received wide support from residents, some of whom were calling for the facility to be closed altogether.
On Monday, Pavley agreed to amend the conditions of the closure so that those wells that pass review can be reopened.
At the heart of the issue Monday was the question of what impact the potential closure of Southern California Gas' 3,600-acre facility might have on the state's power grid. SoCal Gas has operated the facility since the 1970s. It considers the wells to be an important part of its power supply for California electricity plants and says that if the facility were to be shut down, supply would have to be shipped in to California. In a Jan. 20 San Diego Tribune opinion piece, SoCal Gas' senior vice president of gas operations and systems integrity, Jimmie I. Cho, said the Aliso Canyon is the "backbone" of the company's regional supply network. Cho is also a senior vice president of San Diego Gas and Electric.
"SoCal Gas has operated the Aliso Canyon facility safely and reliably since the facility was opened in 1972," Cho said.
Well, sort of.
An LA Weekly article on the leak in December notes that the reason the company had such a difficult time stopping the leak was because, according to two former SoCal Gas employees, the safety valve had been removed from the well in 1979 because it had not been working properly. And the leaking valve hadn't been replaced, SoCal Gas' vice president of customer solutions, Rodger Schwecke, told LA Weekly, because regulations exempted it from having to be replaced.
"If SS-25 were a 'critical' well — that is, one within 100 feet of a road or a park, or within 300 feet of a home — then a safety valve would be required. But it was not a critical well, so it was not required," the Weekly explained.
Which is what led to the State Assembly's consideration of an urgent moratorium and "rigorous safety review" of Aliso Canyon's 115 wells, and why natural gas storage is now a front-and-center debate in more states than just California.
Meanwhile, the fall out from what has been termed by environmental groups as "the worst environmental disaster since the BP Oil Spill" is far from over. Lawyers have been lining up to represent residents, businesses and others affected by the spill; homeowners are eyeing the prospect of returning to a series of gated communities that lie at the southern edge of Aliso Canyon, and guestimates are still being averaged as to the long-term impact of a methane leak that hasn't been quantified.
"What if the chemicals which spewed unabated into the atmosphere for so long have settled into porous materials like carpet and upholstery? What about the exteriors of houses and vehicles that are now speckled with oil and tar? What about pets that were outside during this period? What will be the impact on lawns and other plant life?," asks environmental attorney Bradford Gilde. Gilde is best known for a landmark suit against a hydraulic fracturing drilling company in Texas. "How do you accurately assess and clean up all these types of damage? And what happens if a good rain causes these chemicals to seep into the area’s groundwater and, eventually, the municipal water supply?"
As to quantifying the amount of methane that actually dispersed into the air during the four-month-long leak, SoCal Gas isn't sure it can tell. The company is apparently fighting regulations that would require it to report how much methane has leaked into the atmosphere. The company told the Public Utilities Commission in a filing last week that it did not agree with new regulations that would require SoCal and its sister companies to report methane and other gas leaks due to "catastrophic failure."
"In the event of catastrophic pipeline failures, the Joint Utilities are not aware of any established methodology that could be used to determine the release of methane and/or carbon dioxide (in the case of combustion). These types of events require specialized consideration and collaboration with various regulatory agencies to estimate the volume of emissions for potential inclusion in the greenhouse gas inventory for the state," the commission said.
Plus, being required to report the emissions under a separate category for catastrophic events, said the utilities, "on isolated events stands to distract from that intent, and could lead to reporting of emissions that are outside of the scope of SB1371 [California's natural gas leakage abatement legislation]."
To the residents of Porter Ranch, however, extraneous data that gets caught up in determining how much methane may have affected the property values or the safety of their homes is probably of little concern. Ensuring another catastrophic failure does not occur at the 40-year-old Aliso Canyon storage facility will probably be a much bigger issue on the minds of these SoCal Gas consumers.
Image credit: Earthworks
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.