Culver City Edition East Edition Lead Story West Edition

County to create ‘strike team’ to oversee oil fields

LOS ANGELES — The recent natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon in the Porter Ranch area was still on county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ mind this week as the county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously March 29 to set up a “strike team” to ensure that oil and gas wells in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County are operating safely.

Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Hilda Solis say that regulations governing wells are inconsistent and it’s the county’s job to keep residents safe.

“We have spent too much time reacting to environmental crises, one catastrophe after another … [including the] Athens Tank Farm, Aliso Canyon methane leak [and] Exide battery recycling facility,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We have a job to do and I think it’s ours to do.”

There are 1,687 oil and gas wells in unincorporated areas of the county, 95 percent of which are run by a dozen operators, according to a report by the Department of Regional Planning that relied on data from the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

Nearly 60 percent of those wells are part of the Inglewood Oil Field in Ridley-Thomas’ Second District. Those fields operate under a broad set of regulations that mandate air and groundwater monitoring, emergency response plans and other protocols. But the balance is subject to regulations that vary from site to site.

The strike team will be charged with evaluating the remaining wells and recommending additional oversight or operational changes needed to keep residents safe.

The board also asked its lawyers and land planners to update zoning codes to ensure that future oil and gas facilities do not operate “by right.”

Historically, where zoning has permitted this type of industrial use, operators haven’t had to pull any special permits before drilling.

“Drilling should not be allowed by right in any zone,” Ridley-Thomas said.

The Aliso Canyon leak started last October. More than a million barrels of natural gas a day were released from an underground storage facility, polluting the atmosphere in the Porter Ranch area and forcing residents out of their homes. It took until February for the Southern California Gas Company to cap the leak.

It terms of environmental impact, it was the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history and Ridley-Thomas and his four colleagues on the Board of Supervisors don’t want that to happen again.

Based on a suggestion by Supervisor Michael Antonovich, the county will also establish a five-member advisory panel of experts to work with the strike team looking at wells in unincorporated areas. Each supervisor is expected to appoint one member by May 1.

On Antonovich’s recommendation, the board also voted to send a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to create a multi-agency task force led by the Energy Department to investigate the cause and effects of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in Porter Ranch.

Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed such a task force last week, asking that it also determine whether the facility can continue to operate safely.

It is unlikely that what happened in Aliso Canyon could happen in the Inglewood Oil Field.

The Baldwin Hills Community Standards District created the regulatory standards that cover those fields.

The district restricts the amount of drilling allowed, monitors air quality, groundwater, noise and seismic activity; and requires emergency response protocols and monthly meetings with members of the community.

But other county residents who spoke at the March 29 Board of Supervisors were concerned about their own communities.

A Montebello resident told the board she was worried about how Southern California Gas. Co. officials were going about decommissioning a gas storage facility in her neighborhood.

Yvonne Watson, who is also a Sierra Club advocate, said the utility was unable to tell residents when it would finish shutting down the facility, which it first agreed to close in 2000.

“You don’t have anything to worry about, everything’s safe,” Watson said SoCalGas officials told community members in a presentation last week that she called “a joke.”

“This is precisely why I co-authored this motion,” Solis said in response to Watson’s safety concerns.

The motion calls for the strike team to coordinate with city officials in developing new regulations.

Gas Co. officials said the Montebello site is not an active natural gas storage field and gas is not being injected into the field.

The utility has sealed a majority of the wells, but is still working to recover “cushion gas” that maintains pressure in some of those that remain.

The field currently produces roughly 1 million cubic feet of natural gas and about 100 barrels of oil daily, according to the Gas Co.

“Unlike Aliso Canyon, most of the 48 active wells at Montebello are depleted and the gas must be extracted from liquids [oil and water]. For that reason, a leak similar to Aliso is highly unlikely since the liquids prevent the gas from leaving the field. It has to be pumped to the surface with the liquids,” the utility said in a statement provided to City News Service.