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Equipment and machinery is seen on a ridge above a natural gas well known as SS25 in Southern California Gas Company's vast Aliso Canyon facility. (Photo: Scott L/flickr/cc)

Porter Ranch 'Climate Disaster' Shows Need for National Fracking Ban: Sanders

California's methane-spewing well 'symptomatic of a larger, more systemic problem of the oil and gas industry,' says environmentalist

Deirdre Fulton

As the ongoing Porter Ranch disaster shines a spotlight on the dangers of aging natural gas infrastructure around the country, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and environmental experts are now arguing that the leaking well serves as "yet another example of the urgent national need to transition away from fossil fuels."

"The Porter Ranch gas leak is a climate disaster," Sanders said in a tweet on Thursday, after being asked about the situation at a town hall meeting at Southern New Hampshire University.

What's more, the failure at the Aliso Canyon well—which has for months been spewing thousands of tons of methane gas into the air and sickening residents of the town just 25 miles outside of Los Angeles—"is illustrative of a problem that is happening every day," Mark Brownstein, the vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and energy program, told the Huffington Post.

"It's a problem at gas storage facilities across the U.S.," he said. "I don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that while this is a big pollution event with huge impacts to the community, and [one that] certainly upends a lot of progress that California has been trying to make on climate change, it really is symptomatic of a larger, more systemic problem of the oil and gas industry."

Brownstein explained: "A fair chunk of the emissions associated with the oil and gas industry in the U.S. come from these types of events: leaks on systems, equipment that fails, equipment that malfunctions."

In fact, according to a Reuters exclusive on Friday, "[u]tilities and regulators have been 'gambling' with wells that in many cases were drilled in the 1950s, [California State Senator Fran] Pavley said. She described their standard practice as, 'Don’t fix it until it leaks or cracks or breaks.'" The Aliso Canyon facility itself is comprised of depleted oil wells from the 1950s that were converted in the 1970s to a natural gas storage reservoir.

Barring storm interference, President Barack Obama is expected to propose new rules on Friday to curb leaks from oil and natural gas production on public lands.

And earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to issue emergency safety regulations for underground gas storage. Last week, the agency proposed requiring facilities to submit plans for inspections and leak detection and to test all safety valve systems every six months.

But such fixes are merely band-aids in the face of a national emergency, said Linda Capato Jr., the fracking campaign coordinator for the environmental group Porter Ranch and similar recent disasters, she continued, are "indicators of a failing regulatory system that can’t keep us safe from things that are inherently dangerous."

For instance, consider that newly uncovered documents show that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was "commonly used in the Aliso Canyon gas storage wells—including a well less than a half-mile from the leak," wrote Center for Biological Diversity attorney Maya Golden-Krasner in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee on Thursday.

Golden-Krasner continued:

The public is not notified of this practice. That’s because California’s new fracking notification law, Senate Bill 4, contains a little-noticed provision exempting well stimulation for gas storage. And officials with the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources know disturbingly little about fracking in Aliso Canyon wells or other gas storage operations around the state.

That’s consistent with the Brown administration’s hands-off approach to regulating oil and gas companies’ underground injection activities. In 2011, Brown fired two oil regulators who raised safety concerns. Last year, state regulators even admitted they had let oil companies drill thousands of injection wells into legally protected underground water supplies.

[...] Despite the widespread use of this practice, most Californians have no idea that gas storage wells near their homes are being fracked. That’s absolutely unacceptable and must end immediately.

And it provides more evidence of the need to keep natural gas in the ground, not burn it.

The climate-destroying debacle at Porter Ranch, said Sanders, "is yet another reason why I have called for a ban on all fracking. Porter Ranch is simply one more tragic cautionary tale in our dependence on oil and gas."

He continued: "That is why I have put forth the most far-reaching climate plan of any candidate for the presidency. I opposed Keystone XL from Day One. I am the only candidate for president who has opposed the Bakken Pipeline in Iowa, and the proposed pipelines in New Hampshire and Vermont carrying fracked gas."

As noted in a statement Thursday, Sanders' fellow Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley have yet to comment on the Porter Ranch crisis or come out with strong positions against fracking.

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