White House Report Looks to Curtail Natural Gas Blowouts

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after a leaking well near Los Angeles spewed natural gas for nearly four months and drove thousands from their homes, a White House task force is recommending dozens of safety changes for the nation’s 400 underground natural gas storage wells.

A report being released Tuesday recommends that operators of gas-storage facilities conduct strict risk assessments and develop robust safety procedures, including ensuring that wells have backup systems to contain gas flows in the event of a leak. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report in advance.

The gas leak was the largest-known release of climate-changing methane in U.S. history, according to scientists. It spewed an estimated 107,000 tons of methane before being controlled in February. The blowout sickened residents in the Porter Ranch neighborhood and surrounding suburbs who complained of headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and other symptoms from the foul-smelling gas.

“Natural gas plays an important role in our nation’s energy landscape, and we need to make sure the associated infrastructure is strong enough to maintain energy reliability, protect public health and preserve our environment,” Franklin Orr and Marie-Therese Dominguez, who co-chaired the interagency task force, said in a statement.

The Aliso Canyon well operated by Southern California Gas Co. used a design that made it dependent on a single barrier to contain the gas. When that barrier failed, a blowout reported Oct. 23 spewed methane uncontrollably for nearly four months.

SoCalGas has pleaded no contest to a criminal charge and agreed to pay $4 million in a settlement with prosecutors. The deal requires the utility to adopt a leak-monitoring system at the facility that goes beyond federal and state requirements.

SoCalGas has estimated costs of $717 million related to the leak, including about $500 million to relocate about 8,000 families uprooted as a result of the accident.

The task force makes a total of 44 recommendations to industry and government regulators to reduce the likelihood of future gas leaks and minimize impacts of leaks that occur.

“No community should have to go through something like Aliso Canyon again,” Orr and Dominguez said. “Companies operating natural gas storage facilities should adopt the recommendations as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of future leaks.” Orr is an undersecretary of energy. Dominguez is administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The cost estimates by SoCalGas do not account for possible damages from 138 pending lawsuits or civil or criminal penalties that could be brought by a swarm of government agencies investigating the leak.

Aliso Canyon is the largest gas storage facility west of the Mississippi River and a major source of energy for the Los Angeles area. Energy officials have warned of possible blackouts if it is not able to resume operations.

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