It’s The Largest Methane Leak in U.S. History. Who’s Responsible?

January 14, 2016 | 9:41 am
Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon facility. Photo: Scott L.
David Babson
Former contributor

Perhaps the only thing growing as fast as the Powerball Jackpot this week is the liability that Southern California Gas Company faces for its massive natural gas leak discovered last October. The leak’s three month anniversary, on January 23rd, is expected to pass without any resolution, and current estimates are that it will not be stopped until at least March 2016. We know the leak has very negative implications for the climate—so what is happening to hold the company accountable for its impacts?

What is going on?

The gas leak near Porter Ranch California consists of mostly methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas that is gushing out of a natural gas storage well at more than 500 kilograms per minute. This leak is assumed to be the result of a faulty deep subsurface valve that should have been replaced more than 30 years ago, but obviously wasn’t. Lots of good reporting has covered the leak for a few months: the L.A. Times has regular and valuable reporting on the impacts to the local community, and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has provided useful technical analyses. As usual, Vox prepared a really comprehensive explainer addressing a wide range of valuable questions.

At this point, we are waiting for relief wells to be drilled as part of the effort to stop the flow of natural gas. This excruciating wait is reminiscent of the delay we endured as millions of gallons of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. It also reminds me of the long history of oil and gas industry harms resulting from irresponsible behavior.

To me, the aspects of this story that appear the most striking are the magnitude of the leak, and the unique responses to it as a function its location. First, the relative size of this leak, which can be monitored using EDF’s convenient emissions tracker, is INSANE – and it continues. This single leak represents nearly 5% of the total inventoried methane emissions occurring across the entire U.S. oil and gas sector – highlighting the need to hold not only SoCal gas accountable for their emissions, but the rest of the industry as well.

Second, because this leak is occurring less than a mile from an affluent community north of Los Angeles, and because this affected community is situated in CA, the leak is garnering far greater attention and being responded to far differently than it would be were it occurring elsewhere. I expect to hear a lot more about this leak and I expect SoCal Gas to pay-out a lot of money in damages—neither of these expectations would be typical for such a leak in many other jurisdictions.

Liability continues to grow

As a result of the gas leak, there have been dozens of reported health problems, two nearby schools have been closed, and SoCal Gas has begun to pay for the relocation of wanting families. So far, the students from shuttered schools have been bussed elsewhere and more than 2,000 families have been relocated. Nearly 3,000 more are waiting to be relocated as well.

As these houses sit empty, they become vulnerable to crime and decline in value. And beyond paying to fix the leak, cover medical costs, and relocate families, SoCal Gas is already fielding 25 lawsuits with more expected in the coming weeks, months and perhaps years.

While this is just the most recent in a long history of oil and gas industry disasters, the particulars of this circumstance are unprecedented (sadly not unheard of). Legal experts predict that SoCal Gas will be on the hook for billions over a long period of time.

Broader accountability is needed

One component of the growing liability that is unique to CA is that it includes the requirement to mitigate associated climate emissions. California is an exceptional case because it already had a mechanism to price carbon emissions under its novel cap and trade program—meaning they have an opportunity to correctly hold SoCal Gas, and not ratepayers, accountable for the leak. Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature have indicated their willingness to do so.

It’s important to hold the oil and gas sector accountable for all of the harms associated with leaks from its operations. Given the proximity of this CA event to area homes, businesses and schools, there are significant visible health and property damages that are occurring. Of course, everyone expects SoCal Gas to be held accountable for “visible” damages, but it is good to see that CA intends to hold SoCal Gas accountable for its substantial climate damages as well. Methane leaks from the oil and gas sector are common, and they represent a substantial amount of unnecessary and harmful climate emissions. However, in many places throughout our country and around the world, perhaps places without kids to visibly sicken and affluent neighborhoods to acutely devalue, there is often no liability whatsoever, since climate damages are not considered. Climate accountability is awfully rare outside of California, and this needs to change.

Greater responsibility should be expected

Assessing liability and enforcing associated accountability are extremely important components for dealing with the all-too-common leaks, spill, and other harms from the oil and gas industry, but greater responsibility should also be demanded of this industry. A responsible energy industry would do a better job of preventing these problems instead of just paying for the harms created once it is already done.

At the end of the day, this is a big and high-profile leak. The actions taking place in CA show what accountability looks like, but we need the oil industry to be held accountable and to behave responsibly wherever it operates, across the US or around the world.  This is the process that was highlighted in Paris last month, even as relief well drilling went on. The fact of the matter is that climate damage caused by the oil industry happens all over the world and affects us all—regardless of where the well head is located.

Featured photo: Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon facility. Photo by Scott L.