Worse than Deepwater Horizon?

While the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is considered one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history[1], another disaster with potentially worse consequences is currently occurring.  A massive methane leak from a Southern California Gas Company storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA, has been spewing the chemical into the air since October 23rd and is showing no signs of stopping soon.[2]  At the end of January 2016, the leak has spilled more than 92,000 metric tons of methane into the air—the equivalent of 1,666,737 passenger cars being driven for one year.[3]  Although the leak has received far less media attention than the Deepwater Horizon Spill, it is symptomatic of a larger danger, especially when considered in light of the increased reliance on natural gas as fuel source.[4] In the push to limit carbon emissions, natural gas has been trumpeted as a viable alternative that is abundant and relatively clean burning.  However, while methane burns cleaner than other carbon-based fuels, it is far more damaging in the atmosphere as a raw element, and “can be 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.”[5]  Methane’s true danger thus occurs while it is being transported and stored, where leaks are commonplace and not accurately reported.[6] Despite these significant dangers, the industry as a whole remained fairly unregulated until recently, with proposed cuts to leaked methane emissions only occurring in the past year.[7] Ironically, the leaking of methane may eliminate any net benefit gained through the cleaner production of energy.[8]

 

In August of 2015, the EPA proposed reducing the overall amount of methane emissions by 2020 and 2025[9].  The proposed regulation mostly deals with creating “new performance standards” (NSPS) for the oil and gas industry, specifically codifying the goal of limiting the amount of free methane that escapes during the extraction, transportation, and storage stages.[10]  The proposed regulations face resistance by the oil and gas industry, which would incur an estimated $420 million in costs by 2025 due to the rule; however, the EPA estimates the new NSPS will reduce waste by as much as $550 million, for a net gain of $130 million.[11] While the EPA’s math may ultimately be imperfect, their logic is sound—the oil and gas industry wastes a substantial amount of methane through “flaring” and “venting,” where excess methane is purposefully released or burned off.[12]  Additionally, the rise of hydraulic fracking has only worsened the environmental threat that methane poses, with a significant number of fracking wells tapping previously inaccessible oil and methane.[13]  While still in the notice-and-comment period, the proposed regulations would have a substantial impact on the oil and gas industry.  The oil and gas industry is not entirely opposed to the new regulations, as the new regulations would be “forward looking,” and only impact new and modified equipment.[14] However, the oil and gas industry predictably believes they can self-regulate and that the new regulations will increase the costs of energy.[15]

 

In addition to federal penalties, the Southern California (SoCo) Gas Company responsible for the current gas leak will also have to address the possibility of civil litigation brought by the residents of nearby communities.  As shown in In re Deepwater Horizon, energy companies have some exposure to class-action suits based on negligence.[16]  While the circumstances and media coverage of the Deepwater spill distinguish it from the methane leak in California, it demonstrates that environmental catastrophes can have extraordinary legal results.[17] A significant number of Porter Ranch residents are currently being impacted by the methane spill (some having relocated temporarily), reporting a wide range of health effects that would likely put them into an eligible class.[18]  Additionally, if SoCo is found to have committed gross negligence in their operation of the methane storage site, extreme penalties (such as the removal of liability caps, as happened in the Deepwater Horizon spill) are not out of the question.[19]


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, NOAA (last visited January 17, 2016), http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/deepwater-horizon-oil-spill/.

[2] Tia Ghose, 5 Facts to Know about the California Methane Leak, Scientific American (Dec. 31, 2015), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/5-facts-to-know-about-the-california-methane-leak/.

[3] Matt Ferner, Lydia O’Connor, Here’s How Enormous The Methane Blowout Is In California, The Huffington Post (Feb. 2, 2016, 4:53 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/california-gas-leak-infographic_us_56aff98ce4b09214b14f54b9/.

[4] Ramòn Alvarez et al., Greater Focus Needed on Methane Leakage from Natural Gas Infrastructure, National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Apr. 24, 2012), http://www.pnas.org/content/109/17/6435/.

[5] Ghose, supra.

[6] John Schwartz, Methane Leak in Natural-Gas Supply Chain Far Exceed Estimates, Study Says, The New York Times (Aug. 15, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/science/methane-leaks-in-natural-gas-supply-chain-far-exceed-estimates-study-says.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article/.

[7] Gardiner Harris, Coral Davenport, E.P.A. Announces New Rules to Cut Methane Emissions, The New York Times (Aug. 18, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/19/us/epa-announces-new-rules-to-cut-methane-emissions.html?_r=0/.

[8] Alvarez et al., supra.

[9] Harris, Davenport, supra., Environmental Protection Agency, 80 Fed. Reg. 56,593 (proposed Sept. 18. 2015) (to be codified at 40 C.F.R. 60).

[10] Harris, Davenport, supra.

[11]Harris, Davenport, supra.

[12] U.S.  Gen. Accountability Office, GAO-15-39, Oil and Gas Resources: Interior’s Production Verification Efforts and Royalty Data Have Improved, but Further Actions Needed (2015).

[13] Ari Phillips, Oil and Gas Wells are Leaking Huge Amounts of Methane, and It’s Costing Taxpayers Millions, ThinkProgress (May 8, 2015, 10:07 AM), http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/08/3656343/fugitive-methane-on-the-loose-on-public-lands/.

[14] Schwartz, supra.

[15] Harris, Davenport, supra.

[16] In Re Deepwater Horizon,728 F.3d 491 (5th Cir. 2013), certified question answered, 470 S.W.3d 452 (Tex. 2015),

[17] Id.

[18] Ulicia Wang, California’s Massive Gas leak Prompts Interest in Detection Technology, The Guardian (Jan. 15, 2016, 10:43 AM), http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jan/15/california-gas-leak-socalgas-aliso-canyon-edf-epa-methane-emissions/.

[19] Deepwater Horizon, 728 F.3d at 737.

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