Will state count massive L.A. methane leak when it totals hoped-for GHG cuts?

By Anne C. Mulkern | 12/22/2015 07:57 AM EST

Multiple investigations are underway into the natural gas leak in Los Angeles County that has forced evacuations and school closures and could mean steep fines for the utility involved.

Multiple investigations are underway into the natural gas leak in Los Angeles County that has forced evacuations and school closures and could mean steep fines for the utility involved.

Now in its ninth week, the leak poses a setback to California’s ongoing work to cut carbon pollution. But how the state will account for the spike in greenhouse gas emissions isn’t clear.

Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) has estimated that the leak in a line in the Los Angeles suburb of Aliso Canyon could take four months to repair. If that projection is right, by the time it’s capped, it will have put 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air, said Tim O’Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s oil and gas program in California.


That would represent 3 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, he said. That’s looking at it over a 20-year impact. The state’s Air Resources Board (ARB) looks at the hit over a 100-year period, he said, which produces a lower number.

"Regardless of whether using their number or our number, the number is really, really large," O’Connor said. "Some mitigation is needed. We’re going to need to make the atmosphere whole."

Methane leaks are not included in what companies need to report to ARB under the state’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. The state’s counting of greenhouse gas pollution focuses primarily on human-caused contributions. There’s no plan yet for how — or whether — California will factor in the Aliso Canyon emissions when it determines whether it has met its goal of cutting carbon.

California wants to slice greenhouse gas pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent beneath 1990’s point by 2050.

"We’ll have to see how much methane is ultimately released," Dave Clegern, an ARB spokesman, said in an email. "That will be part of the full impact we have to assess."

When the state set its goal of reducing emissions 40 percent, O’Connor said, it was thinking more about the pollution that happens every day, and not episodic emissions like a time-limited leak. But "now that we have this," he said, "it has to be taken into account."

He said the magnitude of the leak could push the state to look more closely at how to make sure methane leaks are prevented.

"The state’s eyes are open, especially on [natural gas] storage, that this is an area to look at," O’Connor said. "Natural gas storage tends to fly under the radar until catastrophe strikes."

SoCalGas did not answer questions provided Friday.

3 agencies investigating

California’s Public Utilities Commission and the Conservation Department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) separately have launched probes. The agencies have told SoCalGas to hire an independent third party "to perform a technical analysis of the well failure and its cause," Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) Office of Emergency Services said. The utility must pay for it without charging its ratepayers, and the results will be made public.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which oversees air matters in Los Angeles and Orange counties, meanwhile, has issued a notice of violation to SoCalGas. AQMD rules prohibit any source from creating a public nuisance, said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. The sulfur or "rotten egg" smell tied to the leak could be considered a nuisance.

The agency under that notice could assesses penalties for each day of the leak. Those likely would be determined through negotiations with the company and AQMD lawyers after the problem is resolved and the extent is known. AQMD has a tiered structure for penalties, depending on whether there was strict negligence or whether it was a willful and knowing violation.

The local air agency’s hearing board, an independent, five-member group, will meet Jan. 9 to consider a petition on SoCalGas. That likely would require the company to take specific steps to remedy violation. AQMD lawyers have not yet prepared the petition, so the requested steps haven’t been determined.

ARB has some oversight but is deferring initially to AQMD, said Clegern with ARB.

"We will have to see the full impact of the incident before we can look at anything like that from a GHG point of view," he said in an email. "In other words, the leak must be stopped."

Los Angeles, meanwhile, has sued SoCalGas. The city in its legal complaint is asking the court to require the company to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas climate pollution.

"We think that’s wholly appropriate," said O’Connor with EDF.

The company should have to fund efforts that cut emissions as a kind of "offset" for the amount of short-lived climate pollutants ultimately connected to the leak, he said.

"We need to make sure the accounting’s done" and that emissions are lowered in an amount "at least equal to the amount of pollution put out," O’Connor said. "This leak is so big, you can’t just mitigate the gas company’s pollution and get enough" reductions.