Los Angeles, California, USA: Authorities on Wednesday announced a $119.5 million settlement with Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) over the 2015 Aliso Canyon blowout widely proclaimed to be the worst methane gas leak in U.S. history.
In addition to reimbursing the city, county and state for the costs of mitigating the leak, SoCalGas will work with the California Air Resources Board to alleviate methane emissions and fund local environmental projects.
Under agreement, the company is required to refrain from passing the cost of the settlement to rate payers. The terms also include the monitoring of methane along the Aliso Canyon facility’s fence.
The settlement was announced in a news conference at the California Department of Justice in downtown Los Angeles held by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city and county officials.
“We allege that SoCalGas violated California public nuisance laws, California health and safety codes: and those relate to the unlawful discharge of air contaminates that cause a nuisance or injury to a considerable number of people,” Becerra said. “And a failure to timely report the release of hazardous material.”
A well in the company’s Porter Ranch facility blew out in October 2015, spewing more than 100,000 tons of methane and prompting thousands of residents to flee. Thousands of people evacuated from Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch, as California declared a state of emergency. The leak occurred in an over 60-year-old well, one of 115 wells at a vacant oil field that was converted in the 1970s to store gas a mile-and-a-half underground where crude oil had been removed. Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage site in the West.
The leak, which wasn’t permanently plugged until February 2016, was followed by lawsuits over its effect on residents health. The leak led to mass complaints of health issues ranging from headaches and nosebleeds to nausea and cancer; issues that persisted after the leak was capped.
In February 2017, SoCalGas agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Limited operations resumed at the facility in late July 2017 with the blessing of state regulators. Efforts by Los Angeles County officials to block the resumed operations failed in court. Despite the complaints, a judge ruled in July 2017 that the facility could reopen.
Matt Pakucko, who co-founded the group Save Porter Ranch, expressed disappointment with the agreement between the government and SoCalGas.
“[California Attorney Xavier Becerra] should be investigating, not settling,” he told reporters ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra addressed the terms of the the settlement at the news conference, saying that the agreement did not resolve ongoing litigations over health concerns on residents nor the California Public Utilities Commission’s continuing investigation of the root cause of the incident.
Becerra said there is “no excuse” for the leak, citing its adverse health effects and the disruption it caused for tens of thousands of residents. He also emphasized the destructive contributions the leak had to greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change. The leak released methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
“California is a leader when it comes to addressing climate change,” Becerra said. “This leak undermined our crucial work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect our people and the environment. If approved, this settlement will go a long way in addressing the short and long-term harms attributable to the leak.”
“Under the terms of the $119.5 million settlement agreement, SoCalGas will, among other things, reimburse city, county and state governments for costs associated with their response to the leak; establish a program with the California Air Resources Board to mitigate the methane emissions from the leak; and fund local environmental benefit projects to be administered by the government parties,” SoCalGas said.
The settlement also funds a long-term study of “health impacts the gas leak had on [Porter Ranch] residents,” LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.
The company has already reached a $8.5 million settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
It paid another $4 million to settle criminal charges.
The company is also facing a flurry of lawsuits from thousands of residents affected by the leak.
The settlement is not related to a separate class action lawsuit involving around 9,000 plaintiffs that has been filed again SoCalGas.
“But I want to make sure it’s clear this does not resolve another crucial component that resulted from this incident, and that is the personal harm and injury and damages that Angelenos suffered as a result of this leak… that litigation is ongoing, and it involves hundreds of lawsuits and thousands of litigants at this very moment,” Becerra said.
The settlement also does not resolve the cause of the leak, which is being investigated by the California Public Utilities Commission.
“That is under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission,” Becerra said. “And they are right now in the process of doing the investigative work to come out with an answer to the root cause of this particular incident.”
A study found that the leak was equivalent to the total emissions of half a million cars for an entire year. Over 112 days, the leak poured 100,000 tons of methane—a greenhouse gas more harmful than carbon dioxide—into the air, according to the first study of the entire leak by a team of researchers from UC-Irvine, UC-Davis, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and elsewhere.
The study found the leak’s pollution to be equivalent to annual emissions from half a million cars. At its highest level, methane from the site was double the methane emissions from the entire Los Angeles basin. In total, the amount released equaled one quarter of all methane pollution from every other source in the LA basin for the entire year.
In short, this leak was absolutely devastating. And it wasn’t an isolated incident.
UC-Irvine released another report that surveyed the “ever-present dome of methane that hovers over the region” of Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties. That research underscores how “ubiquitous” small leaks contribute to methane pollution throughout the area. A researcher from Boston University has measured similar small leaks throughout Boston and Washington, DC.