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California regulators limited in fines against stealthy gas leakers

Since Oct. 23, 2015, natural gas has been spewing from a ruptured well at SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon Storage Facility near Porter Ranch.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
In the hills above Porter Ranch, workers for The Termo Company secretly vented natural gas from an oil well at SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon Storage Facility. Scientists flying over measuring methane from a much bigger leak found the second leak.

The price of pollution could be going up for a company whose workers are accused of illegally venting natural gas from a hidden pipeline during of the Porter Ranch gas leak.

Employees of Termo Company secretly installed a 300-foot-long underground pipe and used it to vent gas into the air during the Porter Ranch leak. The company was fined $75,000 for three violations, the maximum amount the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources can levy, given the evidence they have gathered so far.

Officials don't know when the venting began or how much gas was pumped into the atmosphere at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, where the community had already been coping with fumes coming from a ruptured natural gas well.

State Oil and Gas Supervisor Ken Harris said his agency continues to investigate the incident, and has referred it to the state Attorney General and Los Angeles District Attorney's offices. Spokespeople at those two offices said they had not yet received the notice.

"DOGGRs authority to issue fines is somewhat limited," Harris said, adding that the Brown Administration wanted to pass a bill that would permit larger fines for willful violations of oil and gas regulations.

"Wasting gas to the atmosphere is against our regulations. You either need to reinject it or capture it," Harris said. Another option is to flare, or burn the gas, but only in areas where that has been approved. Some sites have co-generators that can burn excess natural gas as fuel to create electricity, Harris said.

The Termo Company owns and operates 14 oil and gas wells (eight of them active) within Southern California Gas Company's 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, located just north of Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

Termo's oil wells often produce natural gas as a byproduct. Normally Termo workers would transfer it to SoCal Gas to be injected underground into the gas reservoir. But after a SoCal Gas well ruptured, the state ordered the company to stop injections.

Termo workers buried a 2.5-inch pipe and ran it 300-feet up a hill, terminating under a tree where the natural gas flowed freely. Images of the pipe venting methane gas were captured on infrared video taken from an airplane that air quality scientists were using to monitor emissions from the SoCal Gas well.

Harris said the discovery of the second leak occurred on Jan. 23. It took inspectors time to track it down, partly because the pipe was buried and the vent opened under a tree. The leak was mostly stopped by Jan. 28 and completely stopped some time later.

Termo executive Ralph Combs declined to answer questions, like why the company didn't simply shut down the well or capture the methane. Instead, he sent a statement calling the hidden pipe "a safety back-up system" and said the company expected to resolve the issue soon.

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