California In A “State of Emergency” But Fossil Fuel Industry Says Methane Gas Is Safe

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Americans are an ignorant people if for no other reason than their cavalier attitude toward environmental and health catastrophe’s due to fossil fuel companies’ malfeasance. If the industry is not pouring poisonous chemicals and lead directly into drinking water sources around the country, they are disregarding safety regulations and pouring millions of barrels of oil into the ocean.

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Now, California is the site of what experts are calling a bigger environmental disaster than the BP gulf oil spill; one that prompted Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in a suburb of Los Angeles because of a massive methane gas leak from an underground storage field. Most people welcomed the declaration of a state of emergency, but residents in and around Los Angeles say it has come far too late. The storage field and massive leak is the work of SoCalGas and it has forced an upscale gated community’s 6,500 residents in Porter Ranch to literally flee for their lives.

Governor Brown ordered “all necessary and viable actions be taken to stop it,” but it is unlikely the corporate utility will take responsibility for their deliberately-created environmental and health disaster. This is the second time in five years the SoCalGas company has come under fire for its “90 injection wells” propensity to leak “a very strong greenhouse gas; one capable of trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere.” According to environmental experts and the California Air Resources Board, “when measured in terms of how methane gas affects the atmosphere, its impact can be hundreds, or even thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide.” There is also the, still growing, coating of an oily sludge covering the affected area.

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An Environmental Defense Fund lawyer, Tim O’Connor, echoed what every climate, health, and environmental scientist has known for years; a massive methane leak is an epic environmental and public health catastrophe. “In terms of timelines this is going to surpass the (BP) gulf oil problem by a mile because daily it is emitting more pollution than approximately 4.5 million cars put out every day.” O’Connor was remiss to acknowledge that the leak is growing and SoCalGas has little hope of repairing it anytime in the near future; it is likely why they claim methane gas is safe.

As typical of anyone connected to the oil industry, the utility says there is no danger to health or the environment from methane gas. Because any and everything the oil industry does is godly, good for the environment, and critical to preserve people’s continued good health; ask any Republican. However, if that were the case, the corporation needs to explain why it apologized to, and is helping relocate, residents of Porter Ranch.

There is so much methane gas spewing into the atmosphere, measurements reveal that the high rate of “an extremely potent greenhouse gas leaking near Porter Ranch now accounts for over a quarter of the entire state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.” Remember, this is coming from one small, isolated location outside of Los Angeles and made Porter Ranch “a veritable ghost town.” Still, despite thousands of residents complaining and going to area hospitals with severe health effects like “headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing and worse,” the oil industry says “methane gas is not toxic, it is harmless.”

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There is a reason the industry and  SoCalGas is claiming there is nothing to worry about, even as they are paying to relocate 2,000 of the 6,500 families being sickened. The methane leak is not just due to an “underground broken pipe” as the fossil fuel utility claims. It is because SoCal Gas has been very busy removing “injection well” safety valves for over three decades; even after the utility’s customers paid to have the safety valves installed, maintained, and replaced if they fail.

The real outrage is that the fossil fuel industry has been removing well safety valves as a matter of course since 2010 when customers started paying for their installation. According to a fairly in-depth report from NASDAQ,

Newly uncovered information shows that Southern California Gas Company admitted five years ago it operated numerous leaking wells in Aliso Canyon, received a ratepayer increase to upgrade these wells, and then deliberately failed to replace safety valves on its gas injection wells. The result of SoCalGas’s indifference to public safety is the massive gas well failure that forced thousands of Porter Ranch residents from their homes.”

Now, SoCalGas has the temerity to demand that its sickened and dislocated customers absorb another rate increase to pay for the damage to the community and to find a solution to stop the methane leak.

The revelation may be stunning to some, but it is not surprising to anyone with a pulse. It certainly puts SoCalGas’s actions in a new criminally culpable with “malice aforethought” light. The gas utility actually admitted ten days ago to the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee that its new and existing wells do not have safety valves at all. This is in spite of the company begging for “regulatory permission to increase rates six years ago for the purpose of replacing ‘the many’ leaking and failed safety valves at the Aliso Canyon storage field.”

An environmentalist lawyer and activist, Robert Kennedy Jr., who is representing the sick and displaced thousands of families in Porter Ranch stated, “Despite the ratepayer increase and its annual profits of nearly $100 million, SoCalGas tabled the replacement of valves. In 2010, SoCalGas proposed spending $898,000 per year to replace five percent of its leaking valves each year — a 20-year program before the field was rendered safe yet nothing has happened.” The Porter Ranch residents are suing SoCalGas to prevent the utility from raising rates again to fund the repair and replacement of the safety valves, cleanup the five year long contamination, and reimburse the corporation for any victim relocation costs and to increase profits.

If the company’s audacity is stunning it should not be according to a SoCalGas executive’s statements in an interview with LA Weekly.  Rodger Schwecke confirmed the gas company’s cavalier approach to public safety at Aliso Canyon began over three decades ago. Schwecke admitted, in print, that

In 1979, SoCalGas told the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources that it ‘replaced’ the subsurface safety system on the injection well that blew out. In fact, SoCalGas actually removed the safety valve because it was old, leaking and difficult to find a new part. Instead, the company opted not to replace it at all.” A corporate lawyer said that “SoCalGas, like all utilities claim it is new, burdensome regulations that force them to increase rates, but that arguments fails in this case.”

The president of the Porter Ranch community group said that “the recent admission by SoCalGas that it removed safety valves is what prompted an amended class action lawsuit already filed in connection with the massive gas well blowout. This aging, deteriorating and dangerous facility needs to be shut down immediately.” Silly Southern Californian, SoCalGas are a giant fossil fuel industry utility and have a sweet monopoly to preserve. They will not be shutting down the facility and Southern California Republicans Darrel Issa and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will see to it.

However, maybe if the Porter Ranch community group pays for a new storage facility, drops its lawsuit, pays to rebuild their community, and joins Republicans in a nationally-televised apology, the Koch-affiliated corporation may indeed relocate. Otherwise, this deliberate health and environmental catastrophe will produce exactly what the BP disaster, West Virginia chemical spill, and chemical plant explosions in Texas produced; nothing whatsoever because this is fossil fuel’s America.