How Corporate Greed Caused the Massive CA Methane Leak

If you don't live on the West Coast of the United States, you might not have heard about the massive natural gas well leak that's been venting natural gas into the atmosphere at a rate of more than 100,000 pounds per hour for over two months.

Infrared video that the Environmental Defense Fund captured in December shows that the natural gas is billowing like a volcano just above Burbank, California, on a hilltop in the Aliso Canyon area.

That video was taken over a month after the leak started on October 23, after the well had already ejected an estimated 80,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere.

For perspective, 80,000 tons of methane is equal to about a quarter of what the entire state of California - which is the 8th largest economy in the entire world - emitted between October 23 and November 20 in 2015.

And methane, which is what's mostly in "Natural Gas," is actually a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 in the short term, during the first 20 years it's in the atmosphere it can be up to 80 times more potent than CO2.

According to the Washington Post, the impact of the gases that have already been released from this one volcanic leak are equivalent to the impact, over 20 years, of six coal-fired power plants - or 7 million automobiles.

But this leak isn't just a crisis for the climate, it has also forced the evacuation of 1700 homes in nearby neighborhoods, the closing of two schools, and countless residents have reported that the stench has made them ill.

So how did all this happen?

Engineers are speculating that a 7-inch pipe ruptured about 500 feet below the surface, but they won't know for sure until they are able to seal the well off completely, something which the Southern California Gas Company says may not happen until March.

But according to a recent report from the LA Times and a lawsuit from local residents, the initial leak isn't what made this an environmental disaster for the history books.

No, the real problem here goes way back to 1979, when the Southern California Gas Company had the original safety valve removed from the gas well, and then simply didn't bother to replace it.

Mind you, it's not like the well was new in 1979 - it was already a quarter of a century old in 1979 - and 36 years after the company cut that corner, the well finally ruptured at 61 years old.

A spokeswoman told the LA Times that they didn't replace the safety valve simply because the company wasn't required to by law.

So the company simply didn't replace the safety valve, because the profit motive of a corporation means that it has no incentive - no motivation - to protect anyone or anything that it isn't required to protect by law.

And because the company didn't replace the valve, the company estimates that it could be another 3 months before they can plug the well completely.

This is a case where corporate greed and lax regulations have caused a massive disruption in California's energy infrastructure and forced the evacuation of thousands of homes - and it's seriously jeopardized any emissions cuts that California has achieved over the last few years.

And none of it would have happened if we hadn't handed the management of our energy infrastructure over to largely deregulated for-profit corporations that only care about their bottom lines.

Civics has fallen by the wayside in American education, but this case makes it clear that it's time to have a real civic conversation about private and public goods, and about where private ownership ends and where the public commons begin.

This natural gas leak isn't just an environmental disaster - it's an atmospheric catastrophe like we've never really seen before.

Thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, their communities forced to scatter, and the climate has been put even further in jeopardy - just because a for-profit company wasn't required to replace the safety valve on their aging well.

This example proves the importance of treating our nation's energy infrastructure as a part of the Commons.

To do that, we need strict regulations - including enforcement mechanism including fines and jail for executives - that dissuade corporations from cutting corners at the expense of communities and the environment.

And we need to lift the liability cap that allows fossil fuel companies to only pay a fraction of the damages that they cause to communities and to the environment.

It's time to start treating the Commons as something owned by every taxpayer and to be preserved for future generations, instead of something to be exploited for present private profits and left as trash for the taxpayers to pay for and future generations to clean up.


johnbest's picture
johnbest 7 years 10 weeks ago

This gas leak is another infrastructure problem which the Retards (R) will fail to recognize. I am wondering, now that the midwest has been pretty much destroyed by flood water, if they will continue to do the red states bidding and ignore these serious infrastructure problems. This flooding has caused multi-million of dollars worth of damage to bridges, highways, sewage treatment plants, water resources, railroads, electrical transmission lines, ad infinitum. Are the Retards (R) going to continue their denial of existing severe problems with our infrastructure or are they just going to go after the ACA, Planned Parenthood and the president. Will they continue to ignore these infrastructure problems?. I suppose they will need permission from the Koch Brothers to do anything that would help decent Americans.

PhilipHenderson's picture
PhilipHenderson 7 years 10 weeks ago

I live in Irvine, Orange County, California. I have been reading about this man-made disaster for weeks. It appears that So. Cal Gas Company did more than cause the leak. When the residents complained that the leak was affecting their health, the Gas Company lied to them. They denied their was a leak and told the residents not to worry. I believe the executives behaved in a criminally irresponsible manner. Someone should go to prison and heavy fines should be paid from the profits of the utility.

KCRuger's picture
KCRuger 7 years 10 weeks ago

Wait a minute! What about all the rhetoric over the years from the "free markets" crowd, who insist such a situation would never happen, as the resulting loss of market share and trust from the communities harmed would more than provide enough incentive to make sure such a thing never occurred, unless it was unforeseeable.

Those guys who own pro sports teams aren't stupid. What's the commonality in what they've done? They got rid of "free markets" by imposing salary caps; preventing them from bidding against each other in a violent race to the bottom.

Legend 7 years 10 weeks ago

The CEO needs to be put in jail. Only this will prevent future leaks. Yet the Kochs and ALEC are currently trying to make the CEO's less liable.

Kilosqrd's picture
Kilosqrd 7 years 10 weeks ago

"This natural gas leak isn't just an environmental disaster - it's an atmospheric catastrophe like we've never really seen before." TH

Really Thom? Hyperbole perhaps? What about volcanoes?

telliottmbamsc's picture
telliottmbamsc 7 years 10 weeks ago

This from Oil Change International:

As I write this email, an uncontrolled, dangerous, and climate destabilizing gusher of methane is spewing directly into the atmosphere at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, California.

Please join me in demanding that President Obama and EPA Administrator McCarthy do everything in their power to stop this disaster as soon as possible, and to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.

Amazingly, the response to this situation seems to be a collective shrug, as we are told that this disaster will continue for at least several more months. Up to 62 million cubic feet of methane are estimated to be leaking from the site every single day. That’s the same climate impact as driving 7 million cars each day.

Here’s the thing – this isn’t simply a ‘bad mistake’ or ‘unforeseeable complication’, this leak is the result of decades of oil & gas industry influence over Congress and agencies like the EPA. To give you a sense of how preventable this sort of disaster was, the safety valve on the leaking well was removed in 1979 and it was last inspected in 1976.

The Obama Administration will shortly issue long-awaited rules to control methane emissions. But there’s a catch – the rules will not cover existing facilities like Aliso Canyon. Click here to demand these rules cover all existing gas facilities, not just future ones.

The holidays are supposed to be filled with family, friends, good food, and laughter, but for many in Porter Ranch, they were filled with uncertainty and danger. Thousands have had to flee their homes and many are still at risk.

This is the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill in the Gulf and it requires a massive response. Help us shine a light on this important issue by sending your message to President Obama and EPA Administrator McCarthy.

And thank you - for all your efforts and support. Together, we are all making a big difference!

Steve Kretzmann
Executive Director

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