Thursday, December 31, 2015

California's Aliso Canyon Disaster and Regulating Methane Leaks

The big news from California regards a massive leak from Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon storage well. The leak, which has been ongoing since October 23, is accounting for roughly a quarter of California's methane emissions.

This is bad news for numerous reasons: Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its heat-trapping effect over a 100-year period (and 75 times as potent over 20 years). Unburned hydrocarbons are also a noxious pollutant in their own right, causing respiratory distress, headaches and other health problems.

Worse yet, is that that SoCal Gas has proven unable to plug the leak and expect that it will continue until the spring of 2016.

What's perhaps the most infuriating for me is that this sort of leak doesn't appear to be covered by the state's Cap-and trade apparatus designed to limit emissions, since methane leaks from wells do not need to be reported as emissions under state law.  That's too bad, because as EEnews  notes, the leak is the equivalent to about three percent of the state's TOTAL annual greenhouse gas emissions.

If the leak had been covered under the California Air Resources Board's last auction (which calculates methane's impact at 20 times the, SoCal Gas would have needed to purchase SoCal Gas approximately 1.67 million permits at $12.73 per ton of CO2 equivalent to cover the amount of methane leaked at the time writing this. That's $21.3 million. Of course, applicable environmental damage and public health fines, compensation for victims, as well as medium-sized terms in state minimum-security prisons for relevant SoCal Gas executives would be layered on top of that. 

I'm not holding my breath -- though California is much more diligent about these sorts of things than my current residence of Texas.

The good news is that the state has been thinking very concretely about these sorts of emissions and I would imagine they likely will be deploying regulations and countermeasures on leaks in the near future. Colorado was the first state to regulate well and pipeline leaks in 2014.  The federal government is finalizing regulations (though these will certainly be challenged in court) as well. However, the federal regulations apply to new pipelines and wells and not existing ones.

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