How to prevent more gas-leak disasters: Guest commentary

Since Oct. 23, 2015, a natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch has been releasing 70,000 to 110,000 pounds of methane into the surrounding area every hour. Experts are calling this the greatest environmental disaster to strike the United States since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Moreover, there are serious health concerns for Porter Ranch families who have been breathing in methane and mercaptans for months. According to current estimates, the leak will continue at least through February, and possibly longer.

Perhaps most distressing is that Southern California Gas Co., the Sempra Energy subsidiary operating the Aliso Canyon storage facility, could have potentially avoided all of the harm had it simply incorporated common-sense safety procedures.

We’ve created a system that allows certain powerful corporations to act with impunity and ignore best practices that could keep our communities clean and our families healthy. And we’ve dropped the ball on wind and solar energy — we’re moving too slowly on these clean energy sources while continuing to rely on dirty energy that makes us sick.

Lest anyone think that this incident might be an anomaly, there are more than 400 natural gas storage facilities around the United States. One, the Honor Rancho facility, also owned by Sempra Energy, is in the heart of Santa Clarita. We need to act now to make sure another leak doesn’t occur.

That’s why this week I released a realistic legislative plan that I would pursue in Congress. My plan, the Nation Overcoming Leaking Emissions by Acting Knowingly and Controlling Toxins (NO LEAK ACT), would assist local agencies responding to the crisis and ensure access to justice for victims. Most importantly the legislation would:

• Authorize the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) to maintain jurisdiction over natural gas storage facilities and implement appropriate regulations.

• Require increased leak detection and repair monitoring to make sure we have early warning of any future leak.

• Require technologically advanced security safeguards, including downhole safety valves, on all storage wells.

Frustratingly, my opponent, Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, who actually represents the area containing the leaking facility, proudly bragged in this paper that he took no federal action to address the crisis. Instead, one of Knight’s first public comments on the leak (two months after it started) was to say that SoCalGas is working “diligently” to repair the gas leak. Listening to Knight brings back unwelcome memories of President George W. Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” comment regarding FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Incidentally, Sempra Energy was Knight’s eighth-largest campaign contributor throughout his career in the state Legislature.

Just a few weeks ago Knight voted for a bill that makes it harder for Americans harmed by corporate wrongdoing to seek justice through the courts. As the crisis in Porter Ranch continues, it’s unthinkable that Rep. Knight would vote for a bill that could strip injured families of their right to get the relief they need to pay their bills in the wake of this gas leak.

Moreover, outside of the immediate problem, this environmental disaster underscores our need to transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels to safer and cleaner energy, such as wind and solar. Not only will a more forceful push for clean energy allow us to provide a safer and cleaner environment for our children and grandchildren and protect us from the next big leak, it will also create good jobs for people in our community along the way. We won’t be able to make the change overnight, but strong leadership can push us in the right direction, and maybe — just maybe — we can reach our destination before the next disaster strikes.

Bryan Caforio is a partner at Susman Godfrey LLP in Los Angeles. He is a candidate for the 25th Congressional District in the November 2016 election.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Daily News.

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