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June 16, 2014
Viewpoints: Explosions are not the only danger of natural gas leaks

San_Bruno_explosion.jpg(June 16 - By Tim O'Connor, Special to The Bee)

After the San Bruno pipeline explosion four years ago, California placed stronger requirements on utilities to fix leaks that pose an imminent danger to public safety. But explosions are not the only threat from natural gas pipeline leaks.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is an extremely potent climate-destabilizing pollutant and packs a much larger punch than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere over the first 20 years released. According to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, more than one-third of today's human-caused global warming comes from short-lived climate pollutants that include methane.

Changes to the laws following San Bruno focused on safety. When utilities find natural gas leaks that aren't likely to catch fire or explode, they don't have to fix them. Yet, these leaks present a serious climate issue, especially when you consider that California has more than 100,000 miles of natural gas pipes running throughout the state.

Thankfully, a proposed law is making its way through the Legislature with bipartisan support. Senate Bill 1371, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, would require utilities such as PG&E and Southern California Gas Co. to find and fix natural gas pipes that are leaking - even if there's no immediate public safety danger.

It is no secret that California, like many states, has an aging pipeline infrastructure. Because of the huge volumes of natural gas used by residences and businesses, even a small level of persistent natural gas leakage can yield emissions equivalent to the global warming pollution coming from more than a million passenger vehicles. Methane leaks could undo many of the benefits from California's landmark anti-pollution laws, and a failure to address them is a serious gap in our state's efforts to curb climate change.

There are also significant financial repercussions. Even at low natural gas prices, due to the huge volume of gas used in the state and the widespread nature of leaks, methane emissions equate millions of dollars' worth of lost revenue - an amount that California consumers are charged in their monthly utility bills. SB 1371 would require utilities to use best practices to identify leaks, fix them on a timely basis and track progress, reducing the waste of this important energy resource.

The good news is fixing leaks does not need to be financially burdensome to the utilities. There are low-cost strategies to identify and repair leaking pipes. Utilities can and should be prioritizing the biggest leaks, fixing the ones that are the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial. They should also be tracking their system-wide leak rates over time and making sure there is an adequate work force to fix leaks when they are discovered. SB 1371 would require all of these measures.

California is not alone in confronting the problem of methane leaks. The White House recently released a strategy that outlines steps and a schedule that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Energy and Interior will follow to reduce these emissions from several sectors, including oil and gas, the largest industrial source of U.S. methane emissions.

While methane emissions may not always pose an immediate danger to the public, the long-term effects on our climate and associated extreme weather patterns cannot be ignored. SB 1371 is forward-thinking legislation that is a logical next step in California's leadership in addressing climate change. It should be passed into law.

Tim O'Connor is director of the California Climate Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund.