In California’s Porter Ranch neighborhood, a natural gas leak was sealed on Feb. 18th, 2016 after having been in existence for over 2 months. The breach was conclusively linked back to SoCal Gas, which is Southern California’s biggest energy utility company. This story encompasses not only an environmental disaster, but the largest natural gas storage facility in the western United States and the communities that have grown up around it. It sheds light on the risks of natural gas extraction, transportation and storage as well as what regulations are in place to prevent catastrophe.
History of Porter Ranch
Porter Ranch, located in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, is a mainly working class, affluent community. The community is a part of the unincorporated Los Angeles County, which is entirely within the region of San Fernando Valley. It is just a short distance from the communities of Tarzana, Woodland Hills, and Encino. The community was built in the 1950s, growing rapidly in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the early 1970s, the City of Los Angeles first became aware of a severe soil and groundwater contamination issue in Porter Ranch, near the Santa Susana Field Lab. This was the site of a massive underground nuclear testing program from the 1940s through the 1960s. It later became the site of the SoCal Gas methane storage facility, located on what was once a missile launch pad.
The Porter Ranch Gas Leak
On October 23, 2015, SoCal Gas, a California-based natural gas utility, recorded a gas leak in their subterranean storage facility in the Orange County town of Aliso Canyon. Aliso Canyon is a depleted salt cavern mine located in the San Fernando Valley and serves as Southern California’s largest natural gas storage facility. With nearly 100 years of storage, it was built at the turn of the century and continues to be a major energy supplier to its customers. But it was built in violation of health and safety standards, according to a Los Angeles Times report. In fact, a warning was posted on the website of the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) stating, “There is no recorded history of seismic activity within a 2-mile radius of the facility.
Porter Ranch Today
The latest version of the Clean Air Act focuses on limiting the amount of “tax-derived air pollution” allowed into the air, which mainly consists of NO2, SO2 and PM, the latter of which is the most detrimental to human health. Based on an analysis from Clean Air Task Force, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups, air pollution increased by 39% in Los Angeles County, 23% in Orange County, 11% in Riverside County, 3% in San Bernardino County, 8% in Ventura County, 12% in San Diego County, 18% in Santa Barbara County, 18% in Imperial County and 7% in the Coachella Valley. Inland Empire communities faced the biggest increases in ozone concentrations.
The Future of Porter Ranch
The majority of Los Angeles’ suburban population of 42,000 people were evacuated from their homes in October 2015. The gas leak affected 88 families in Porter Ranch and many others throughout Los Angeles and neighboring communities, while the leak exposed residents and nearby workers to intolerable health risks. The damage inflicted by the leak went beyond environmental concerns, the gas leak uncovered some unpleasant truths about life in Los Angeles. These factors have led to public condemnation of the gas utility. Los Angeles County has taken temporary steps to evict families living in the affected area. Although this chapter of Porter Ranch’s story may be closed, the future is still being written.
Gas storage has been utilized by utilities for decades as a means of stabilizing natural gas prices and making them more affordable to consumers. In places like Los Angeles, however, this system may be at risk from poor oversight and an outdated regulatory regime that sees fossil fuels as practically non-polluting. Thanks to the efforts of the gas industry, which has established key relationships with local government, an industry-friendly regulatory structure, and an industry-owned regulatory board, California state energy officials have long been resistant to regulating natural gas storage and storage facility emissions, despite the devastating risks posed by leaks and releases. The regulations are necessary to prevent a disaster like the one in Porter Ranch.