In California, a Climate Damage Precedent?
January 11, 2016
California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered Southern California Gas Co. to pay for a mitigation program to offset damage to the world’s climate from a massive methane leak at an underground natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles.
The directive was part of Brown’s Jan. 6 declaration of a state of emergency. The ongoing leak has caused more than 2,300 people to evacuate their homes and forced school closures in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of northwest Los Angeles. Brown’s proclamation also directed state agencies to protect public health and safety, oversee efforts to stop the 12-week-old leak and ensure that SoCal Gas is held accountable for costs and any violations.
“The California Air Resources Board, in consultation with appropriate state agencies, shall develop a program to fully mitigate the leak’s emissions of methane by March 31, 2016,” the governor ordered. The program “shall be funded by the Southern California Gas Company, be limited to projects in California, and prioritize projects that reduce short-lived climate pollutants,” Brown said in the proclamation.
The leak, in the Aliso Canyon, is the largest known emissions source of its kind and comes during a growing realization of the magnitude of methane emissions associated with the oil and gas industry and the critical role that the gas plays in global warming, said Mark Brownstein, vice president of the climate and energy program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
“This is such a dramatic case that almost by definition it’s going to break new ground in terms of our understanding of the challenge that is in front of us, from a regulatory standpoint, and from a business practice standpoint,” Brownstein said. “It will also likely break new ground on what’s expected of companies if and when these problems occur.”
Not even the gates of a gated community could hold back the stench, and the poison.
Laura Gideon and her family endured the sickening stench from an out-of-control natural gas leak for about a month before they could no longer tolerate the nausea, headaches and nosebleeds.
After she went to the emergency room in November vomiting and with a severe migraine, Gideon, her husband and their two children abandoned the only home they’d ever known together in the upscale Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch.
They moved in with her parents about 10 miles away to await a fix that could still be months away.
“We’re in mourning now,” she said. “We didn’t ever want to leave. We were in a nice gated community. We were safe, you know, supposedly good schools. This wasn’t our plan.”
The nation’s entire oil and gas industry currently leaks more than 7 million tons of methane a year, not counting the ongoing Aliso Canyon leak. The effect that these numerous, smaller leaks have on climate change over a period of 20 years is equal to that of 160 coal-fired power plants over the same time period, according to an EDF calculation based on Environmental Protection Agency data. Oil and gas companies are not required to fund mitigation efforts for climate damage from these smaller leaks, but environmentalists say the size of the current leak in Los Angeles could change how regulators view all emissions.
It’s not entirely clear what statutory or regulatory authority the state of California has to require SoCal Gas to pay, Brownstein said.
Officials with the gas company said that while their current focus is stopping the leak, they plan to comply with the governor’s order.
“SoCal Gas reaffirms our prior commitment to mitigate the environmental impact of the actual amount of natural gas released from the leak,” said Kristine Lloyd a company spokeswoman, in a written statement. “We look forward to working with state officials to develop a framework that will achieve this goal.”
The mitigation program will probably include efforts to plug many smaller leaks in the company’s natural gas distribution system, according to EDF’s Brownstein.
“This event is a watershed moment both because it drives home for the general public the fact that these kinds of problems can and do exist, and hopefully it drives home for the industry that a business-as-usual approach is no longer tenable,” Brownstein said.