Invisible Poison: How the Porter Ranch Gas Leak Shows the Need for Government Regulation

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Equipment and machinery is seen on a ridge above a natural gas well known as SS25 in Southern California Gas Company's vast Aliso Canyon facility. Pressure on the company has been mounting as residents of nearby Porter Ranch deal with the odor resulting from a leak at the well which was discovered on October 23. 12/14/2015
Equipment and machinery is seen on a ridge above a natural gas well known as SS25 in Southern California Gas Company’s vast Aliso Canyon facility. Pressure on the company has been mounting as residents of nearby Porter Ranch deal with the odor resulting from a leak at the well which was discovered on October 23. 12/14/2015

By Ian Edwards

Since October of last year, a subsurface valve operated by the Southern California Gas Company has been leaking  methane gas in Aliso Canyon. This calamity has far-reaching consequences, reducing the quality of air and life in the region for years to come. While more preventative measures must be taken to prevent future leaks, the primary concern should be over regulatory agencies’ lack of enforcement mechanisms and their culture of  permissiveness.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that jeopardizes the health of  earth’s atmosphere. Methane traps heat energy twice as effectively as carbon dioxide, becoming 86 times more potent as it accumulates in the atmosphere over a 20 year period, according to Earthwork Action, an environmental advocacy group. This leak has also increased California’s methane emissions by 21 percent, according to LA Weekly, which will have far-reaching impacts on the environment, contributing to global climate change in a drastic way.

According to Bob Ackley, president of Gas Safety Inc., some methane readings from the area are 60 times higher than normal. The gas being produced from the rupture is creating a strain on not only on the environment, but also on residents’ lives. The emission spread to nearby areas, resulting in the displacement of 30,000 residents of Porter Ranch and causing potential illnesses.

The leak also has released hydrogen sulfide, butane and benzene in addition to methane. All of these compounds are  known carcinogens — that is, they’ve been found to cause cancer in living tissue.

“After only a week of visiting families in Porter Ranch, I am already experiencing the headaches, nausea and congestion that have plagued this community living at the center of one of the most significant environmental disasters in recent history,” said environmentalist Erin Brockovich in an article for EcoWatch.

The extent of this damage  is directly due to the Southern California Gas Company’s lack of  concern, which kept them from taking preventive measures.

According to the Los Angeles Weekly, Aliso Canyon appeared to be in good shape for years before the leak when Anneliese Anderle, a field engineer for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources surveyed the surface of the Aliso Canyon compound.

However, Anderle soon discovered that the company had  intentionally painted and remodelled to hide the corroded equipment. The specific well where the leak originated, SS-25, was originally drilled in 1953. The subsurface safety valve at this well had last been inspected in 1976. When the leak occurred in October, no one had any idea that the valve was breached. An inspection beforehand would have stopped the leak.

This neglect by regulatory agencies could partially excuse the actions of the company if they had not known about the faulty valve beforehand. That would be simple incompetency; however, this is not the case. The valve was actually removed in 1979 and not replaced at any point. Rodger Schwecke, a Southern California Gas Company executive, has stated in LA Weekly that the company deemed SS-25 to not be a critical valve because it was not 100 feet away from a park or highway, therefore not affecting human health.

The company was incorrect.

In order to counter these kinds of oversights, more inspections of the gas infrastructure are needed on a state and federal level.

This need for expanding the scope of regulations in California has been addressed before with the San Bruno pipeline explosion that resulted in the loss of dozens of lives in 2010. In 2014, a packet of bills was signed into law to address institutional failures with regards to the San Bruno pipeline. In these bills, the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) was given many new duties, yet enforcement of these policies, including the inspection and creation of gas safety guidelines, lacked any punishments if the guidelines were violated.

The lack of clear methods of enforcement in public policy have had, and continue to have, dire consequences. The CPUC gave a plan to SoCalGas to help the company perform its own inspections; however, due to the plan’s long-term cost, SoCalGas elected to ignore it, Meanwhile, The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources (DOGGR) stated that, technically, SoCalGas did not violate any of the CPUC’s regulations.

Even DOGGR itself  is guilty of this these kinds of non-interference policies. Senator Fran Pavley, a member of the committee that oversees DOGGR, said “it has been a permitting agency” and “they don’t see themselves as a regulatory agency,” showing these policies are part of a permissive attitude in these agencies towards the companies they should actively be regulating.

It must be acknowledged that inspections are an administrative tool used to make sure that regulations are being followed. Organizations who are given regulatory responsibility must also be given power to punish the breaking of these regulations. To accomplish this, the culture of permissiveness must be amended in these regulatory institutions.

 

Ian Edwards is a first-year undeclared major. He can be reached at edwardsi@uci.edu.

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