Aliso Canyon Disaster One Year Later: Some Progress, But More Action Needed

When the gusher of methane pouring out of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field was discovered last October 23, it almost instantly transformed the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch into the site of one of the biggest environmental disasters in recent history. It would ultimately take four months to stop the massive leak. According to a new report released today, it pumped nearly 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere.

Now, a year later, the question: What’s been done to fix the problem, and to prevent future blowouts – either at Aliso Canyon, or the 400 similar facilities in more than 30 states? The answer is, while there’s been some progress, it’s not nearly enough.

Crumbling Infrastructure, Weak or Non-Existent Rules

These sites aren’t just a health and safety risk to their neighbors. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Old age only makes problems more likely – and more expensive when they occur.

The 60-year-old Aliso Canyon facility is one of the largest of its kind, and it was not in good shape when one of its wells started leaking uncontrollably. There weren’t sufficient state or national rules requiring operators to check equipment for damage, or to make timely repairs. Owner SoCalGas has since spent over $700 million on cleanup, and multiple lawsuits have been filed claiming millions more in damages. But even now, because of lax or non-existent policies, it’s unclear whether any laws were actually broken.

That’s because as it stands, there are still no federal safety or environmental rules covering gas storage facilities. Where state regulations do exist, they vary widely in quality and effectiveness. Last week, a federal task force that was convened after Aliso Canyon to look at these problems issued 44 recommendations to bring national policy into the 21st century. That’s an important step, but the trick is turning that list into action.

Patching Holes in the Safety Net

To get the job done, we need concrete state and federal standards, with regulators at both levels working together to fix the safety net and enforce what is placed on the books. (We also need a set market reforms that reduce the nation’s dependence on gas and gas storage.) Here’s a list of steps that ought to come next:

  1. The federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), one of the agencies on the task force report, is crafting rules regulating gas storage facilities for the first time. It’s imperative that they get the first phase done by the end of the year. (The agency itself recognizes these first steps won’t be enough, and that more robust action is necessary, but it’s vital to get moving now).
  2. As a starting point, PHMSA plans to base its rules on guidelines developed by industry. However, these were never designed to act as regulations, or to cover everything that needs to be done at gas storage facilities. For this effort to become anything more than industry self-policing, PHMSA must couple that guidance with active oversight and stronger standards of its own.
  3. While federal rules for underground gas storage will be a first, all states have the authority to implement and enforce basic well construction principles. Some have also had specialized storage rules in place for years that neither the industry’s gas storage guidance nor PHMSA are yet addressing. It is important that PHMSA make use of this state expertise and that it not dilute or preempt the basic state requirements where they exist.
  4. PHMSA also needs to develop regulatory and enforcement capacity that it currently lacks. For any new policy to be effective, the agency will need increased resources and additional staff who understand the complexities of gas well engineering, construction and operation. PHMSA needs to budget for these resources and congress needs to appropriate them.

There’s plenty for the states to do, too. Every state where gas storage facilities exist should be undertaking a comprehensive review of their regulatory efforts, making improvements where necessary based on the hard lessons being learned from Aliso Canyon.

In California this process is also well under way. Although drafts of permanent regulations we’ve seen so far leave room for improvement, the state’s proposed new rules are still likely to be the most comprehensive in the nation, and we expect California’s rules to exceed PHMSA’s in many areas when they come out early next year.

The agency in charge in California is the Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR, part of the Department of Conservation. That includes deciding when (or whether) Aliso Canyon can reopen. SoCalGas is reportedly finishing required safety testing of the Aliso Canyon storage wells, and is expected to file for that permission soon. DOGGR needs to be unflinchingly rigorous in its review before allowing any amount of injection and production to resume.

The agency has promised to put all data related to the restart decision online; EDF and many others will be watching closely.

While we hope the PHMSA rule is good news for gas storage-related safety and environment around the country, it’s going to be a multiyear process to get the federal rule up to the quality level that Americans deserve. In the meantime states and PHMSA will need to work together closely to minimize gaps in coverage, especially on basic but critical topics like well drilling, casing, and cementing – the best way to prevent well leaks is to build wells right in the first place.

There’s been progress since Aliso Canyon, but there’s still a long way to go before we can rest easy – and there is always room for improvement. Porter Ranch was not the first community hit by this kind of disaster. It will take persistence and  vigilance to make it the last.

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