California methane leak highlights outdated facilities, US-wide emission risks – energy chief

The entrance to Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field is seen in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles, California January 9, 2016 © Danny Moloshok
The US energy chief shone the spotlight on America’s outdated energy facilities after a huge methane leak in California exposed problems with the country’s gas storage fields. Ernest Moniz visited the leaky well in Los Angeles amid activist protests.

"Regrettably, there's a broader theme than Aliso Canyon," Moniz said at a press conference after examining the site of the Southern California Gas Co. leakage, Aliso Canyon. "We have a lot of very old infrastructure in energy that we have to address for the 21st century."

Moniz has not provided any details on potential reforms in the field, but said that “looking at and reducing dramatically methane leaks across the entire system from production to distribution” was a priority.

“Frankly, gas storage fields need a fresh look in terms of the regulatory requirements,” the secretary said after a meeting with federal, state, county and Los Angeles officials on Tuesday. “And some of the ideas are already emerging.”

While the country’s attention has recently been fixated on the leak at Aliso Canyon, the “huge local concern” is a motivating factor to “study more generally across the country," Moniz said. The high-profile visit came just days after the Southern California Gas Company sealed the well and stopped the leak on February 12.

Moniz’s trip to Porter Ranch has been marked by protest, as activists occupied the headquarters of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to demand the closure of a dozen natural gas storage facilities in the state in the wake of the four-month Aliso Canyon storage well leak.

Activists scaled the front of the PUC building to unfold a large banner covering the state seal, protesting what they allege is a “failure to protect [the state] from the climate and health impacts of methane from underground natural gas storage facilities."

Appearing in court on Wednesday, attorneys for SoCal Gas pleaded not guilty to criminal charges over a delay to report a huge methane leak, as well as an additional misdemeanor count of illegally discharging air contaminants. 

The leakage, which occurred from an underground gas storage reservoir in Aliso Canyon, has emitted critical amounts of methane, leading to the evacuation of over 4,000 families in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

The well, also at the largest gas storage facility in the West, was operating for more than 60 years before the rupture.

The extent of the damage has yet to be determined. The well was releasing methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, and experts warn that this could contribute significantly to global warming.

“SoCalGas’ methane leak from Well SS-25 has increased the risk of harm in the future from global warming,” the state’s air regulator said in a recent lawsuit.

READ MORE: Company behind LA’s ‘mini-Chernobyl’ methane leak sued by California air regulator

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, an estimated 96,000 metric tons of methane leaked between October 23, when the leakage started, and February 11, which amounts to $15 million worth of natural gas. This also equals 900 million gallons of gasoline burned or a release of 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.