Democrats raise methane questions as Senate debates broad energy bill

Feb. 8, 2016
California's two US senators-Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein-said that they will introduce an amendment next week to wide-ranging energy legislation currently on the Senate floor.

California's two US senators-Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein-said that they will introduce an amendment next week to wide-ranging energy legislation currently on the Senate floor. It would direct US Energy Sec. Ernest G. Moniz to lead a broad federal review of the cause and the response to a leak at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon storage facility near Los Angeles, the two Democrats said on Jan. 29.

Their announcement came a day after Sens. Brian Schatz (Ha.), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), and 19 other Senate Democrats, including Boxer and Feinstein, asked Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy to expand EPA's regulatory proposal for methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

The moves suggested that several Senate Democrats believe acting aggressively to curb methane leaks at oil and gas sites is more urgent than working with Republicans to enact broader, and less controversial federal energy policy reforms. Those are contained in S. 2012, which the Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed on Sept. 9, 2015, and the full Senate began debating on Jan. 27.

SoCalGas notified state and county officials immediately after it found methane was leaking from its storage facility on Oct. 23, 2015. The Sempra Energy subsidiary has been working with seven California agencies try to stop the leak ever since. It started drilling a relief well on Dec. 4, and announced on Jan. 18 that the relief well was ahead of schedule and the original well could be permanently sealed sooner than originally expected.

The utility also launched a relocation program for affected residents at the nearby Porter Ranch subdivision under a Dec. 24 agreement with the Los Angeles County Attorney.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D), meanwhile, declared a state of emergency on Jan. 6 in connection with the matter. He ordered SoCalGas to take all necessary and viable actions to stop the leak and maximize daily withdrawals from the storage facility; directed California's Public Utilities Commission to ensure that SoCalGas covers all costs related to the leak and associated responses while protecting ratepayers; and ordered state lawmakers to promulgate new regulations. State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-LA and Ventura Counties) introduced legislation on Jan. 11 in response to Brown's orders.

Federal taskforce sought

Under Boxer and Feinstein's amendment, Moniz would lead a six-member intergovernmental taskforce in probing the Aliso Canyon leak, including impacts on surrounding communities and the environment, and issue findings after 6 months, with interim reports as necessary to respond to the leak. In addition to the US Department of Energy, it would include representatives from the US Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the US Department of Health and Human Services, EPA, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of the Interior, the senators said.

They indicated that their amendment would include language directing the taskforce to review and issue recommendations on whether to continue operations at Aliso Canyon and other gas storage facilities close to residential neighborhoods based on an assessment of the risk of a future natural gas leak.

"It has been very frustrating to watch this Aliso Canyon crisis unfold-almost in slow motion-without any clear remedy," said Boxer, who is the Environment and Public Works Committee's Ranking Minority Member. "It is time to put our brightest minds to work to analyze and make recommendations that would not only assist in Aliso Canyon, but would also help us prevent and respond to similar incidents across the country."

California's two Senators joined 17 other Democrats in signing Schatz and Whitehouse's Jan. 28 letter to McCarthy asking EPA to address methane emissions from existing, as well as new, oil and gas operations.

Noting that EPA proposed methane and volatile organic compound emissions from all US oil and gas operations already (OGJ Online, Aug. 18, 2015), the letter said it omitted several other significant sources including liquids unloading, pneumatic controllers that operate intermittently, compressors at well sites, and some storage vessels.

"These sources are associated with significant methane emissions, and low cost controls exist for all of them. We therefore urge EPA to cover them in the final rule," it said.

The letter also recommended that leak detection and repair (LDAR) requirements for new and modified well production sites and compressor stations include quarterly inspections and delete provisions allowing operations to reduce LDAR inspection frequencies to as little as once yearly. This would bring federal rules in line with regulations in states like Colorado and Wyoming, the letter said.

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.