Natural gas leak in California raises questions

The leak erupted on Oct. 23, 2015, at a storage well operated by SoCal Gas in Aliso Canyon, about 42 km from Los Angeles.

The leak erupted on Oct. 23, 2015, at a storage well operated by SoCal Gas in Aliso Canyon, about 42 km from Los Angeles.

The ruptured storage facility has released over 77,000 metric tones of methane, the main component of natural gas – the equivalent of over six million metric tones of carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which has tracked the leak using infrared cameras.

The leak is still ongoing and the gas company estimates it will be spring of 2016 before it can be stopped.

Tim O’Connor, Oil and Gas Specialist for the Environmental Defence Fund, told CBC the leak is “probably one of the largest volumes of gas ever recorded from a single leak.”

“Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas; over the first 20 years it’s released, it has a climate impact 84 times that of carbon dioxide,” said O’Connor. “There’s no telling what the far reaches of the overall end results are going to be. Air quality, public health, ecological — it’s all on the table.”

According to The Guardian, the breach has forced the relocation of hundreds of families, who complained of headaches, nosebleeds and nausea from the rotten-egg smell of the odorant added to the gas to aid in leak detection.

The Environmental Defense Fund wrote the leak has “opened eyes across the world” to the problem of oil and gas methane pollution.

“The Aliso Canyon incident is an example of the type of risks we face as natural gas infrastructure ages, and is a sobering reminder of how important it is to have rules that ensure gas stays in the pipeline — not in our air.”

As several natural gas pipelines are being proposed in Northern B.C. – including TransCanada’s Coastal GasLink Pipeline project, the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako (RDBN) announced in November 2015 it was taking a careful approach to liquefied natural gas development in the region.

According to the RDBN, there are too many unanswered questions regarding the location, operation, and servicing of the large work camps to be built in the rural area. In addition, there is inadequate commitment to utilize wood fibre cut from the pipeline routes, and there is no long-term commitment to support invasive plant management. Furthermore, the RDBN points out that emergency management “remains uncoordinated.”

Shela Shapiro, a Coastal GasLink Spokesperson, said it would not be appropriate or responsible for Coastal GasLink to speak to an incident involving another company, as Coastal GasLink does not have access to the full slate of information. However, she pointed out that the California incident involves an underground storage reservoir. Coastal GasLink, on the other hand, is a proposed long-distance pipeline and is not planning or developing an underground storage facility for B.C.

“Pipelines like the proposed Coastal GasLink project are heavily regulated and are required to be routinely inspected for leaks and to assess the condition of the pipelines through comprehensive integrity management programs,” said Shapiro. “Gas transmission pipes have shut off valves every 20 to 25 miles allowing the flow of gas to be quickly turned off in the event of a leak.”

Shapiro added that safety of the public, employees and the environment is a top priority at TransCanada.

“Over the past three years, we have invested an average of $900 million per year in our proactive pipeline maintenance and integrity,” she said. “In the over 60 years TransCanada has operated pipelines, there have been no injuries to members of the public as a result of operation of our assets.”

Shapiro also pointed out that TransCanada has developed technologies and processes to limit greenhouse gases at its facilities, including methane management programs such as ‘mobile pull-down compression’ to capture methane that may be released during maintenance and fugitive emissions management.

“Our programs have received government recognition,” added Shapiro.

Coastal GasLink is proposing to construct and operate a 670-km natural gas pipeline from the Groundbirch area near Dawson Creek, B.C. to the proposed LNG Canada liquefied natural gas export facility near Kitimat, B.C. Coastal GasLink says the project will create over 2000 jobs during construction and generate over $20 million in annual property tax payments.

The Burns Lake Band has recently signed a long-term project agreement with Coastal GasLink. However, details of this agreement remain confidential.

In December 2014, Wet’suwet’en First Nation signed an agreement with the province to support the Coastal GasLink Pipeline project. After the deal was signed, Chief Karen Ogen faced opposition from some hereditary chiefs.

According to the Los Angeles Times, an amended lawsuit filed against SoCal Gas on Dec. 29, 2015, cited failure by the company to follow laws protecting the community and the removal of the safety valve, which would have been at the base of the well about 8500 feet below the surface.

More than two months after SoCalGas discovered the leak in California, the company says it still doesn’t know what caused it.

“We won’t be able to determine that definitively until we actually complete the relief well process,” SoCalGas Spokesman Michael Mizrahi told CBC. “SoCalGas has observed all of the safety protocols. These wells are inspected every day. They have an in-depth annual inspection once a year, in fact this well was due for its next annual inspection just before the leak happened.”