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A 'No Trespassing' sign sits on a hill at the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

California’s Massive Methane Leak Probably Won’t Be Its Last

Melissa Cronin

Melissa Cronin

Why California’s massive methane problem isn’t over—and why it may only get worse.

A 'No Trespassing' sign sits on a hill at the Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An enormous leak that dumped one of the most powerful types of pollution into the air in Porter Ranch, California, has finally been permanently plugged. But the state is still sitting on top of huge wells filled to the brim with methane, and its aging storage system may not hold out much longer.

The methane leak at the Southern California Gas Company in Aliso Canyon made major news over the past few months, pushing some 5,300 families out of their homes and spewing some 5.4 billion cubic feet of gas into the atmosphere from a 63-year-old well.

That figure is equal to the emissions from more than 700,000 cars over a year's use, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Called the worst natural gas leak in California's history, the city council and resident groups of nearby Porter Ranch, a community of about 30,000 people, have voiced support for a proposed moratorium on gas injections in the area, and are still recovering from being evacuated for weeks from their homes.

But the leak, as catastrophic for the environment as it was, may not be the first of its kind. There are 114 other active underground wells in Aliso Canyon, the 6-mile oil field where the leak occurred. Many of SoCalGas's wells are aging: 18 of the wells are about as old as the one that recently sprang a leak, while nearly all of them were drilled 15 years ago or more. Even SoCalGas's own documents show old infrastructure and corroded pipes—in 2014, the company asked for funding from 2014 the California Public Utilities Commission to fix these problems, citing "a negative well integrity trend" at its facility.

But the problem isn't limited to Aliso Canyon or to SoCalGas. California has 13 other natural gas facilities, all of which are of a "similar vintage," said Briana Mordick, a senior scientist at NRDC focusing on energy and natural gas issues.

"The earliest was discovered in 1929, the latest was discovered in 1958," she told Motherboard. "Some were never designed to hold gas, others haven't been updated. It's the same situation."

It's not just California, either. According to the Energy Information Agency, there are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas stored just a few hundred feet under the Earth's surface, all across the US in 418 underground gas storage facilities. Montana, Pennsylvania Michigan, Illinois, Louisiana, and Texas have the country's biggest natural gas stores—each much larger than that of California.

What the industry needs is both a statewide and nation-wide revamping, Mordick said. Currently, natural gas storage facilities are exempt from the regulations under the Clean Water Act, which would otherwise have held them to higher safety and leakage protection standards. What's more, this exemption frees these types of facilities from oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and are left to their own devices when it comes to prevention measures for environmental safety. Only an act of Congress would change this—and Mordick doesn't see that happening any time soon.

"All of these companies have a responsibility to uphold, but they're basically going to do the bare minimum here," she said. "It's the role of the regulators to do their job—regulate. But in this case, it's a little bit—no, a lot—too late."

Environmentalists are now looking to the state's Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to pick up where the EPA can't, and develop a series of protocols for natural gas facilities to use to determine if their wells are in danger of leaking. They also hope DOGGR will help identify companies and sites that have old or corroded pipes, and push them to repair those before the worst can occur.

Don Drysdale, a spokesperson for DOGGR, told Motherboard that the agency does have some jurisdiction over California's natural gas storage facilities already, including its recently-issued emergency regulations after the Aliso Canyon leak.

"All of these companies have a responsibility to uphold, but they're basically going to do the bare minimum here."

"We are preparing to undertake rulemaking to make significant revisions to the regulations governing the Division's Gas Storage Program," said Drysdale. "This rulemaking effort will build upon the requirements adopted by emergency rulemaking to update regulations and address concerns identified by the Division and other key stakeholders."

DOGGR is currently outlining its planned goals for new regulations, and accepting public comment submissions on them until mid-March. But these new regulations must go further, says Mordick—and DOGGR, a state agency, should serve as an example to the rest of the country.

"We're really looking at DOGGR to be regulating this industry, finally," said Mordick. "Because it's certainly not regulating itself."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the SoCalGas facility was located in Orange County; in fact it is located in Porter Ranch, a city in Los Angeles County.