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Natural gas is not cleaner than coal.

But thanks to boatloads of advertising and campaign contributions, oil and gas lobbyists has convinced many politicians, including President Obama, that replacing coal with natural gas is a viable way to stave off catastrophic climate change.

But it isn’t. The now-famous Aliso Canyon methane leak, its impacts on thousands of residents of near Porter Ranch and its damage to the climate is just the latest and most public example showing that we need to keep natural gas in the ground, not burn it.

The first direct overhead photo of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad since the leak began. Photo credit: Earthworks / Pete Dronkers
The first direct overhead photo of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad since the leak began. Photo credit: Earthworks / Pete Dronkers

The oil and gas industry’s argument for natural gas boils down to this: to generate electricity, burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal. While that is true, it’s only part of the story. But it’s the only part industry tells because it’s the only part they like. Unfortunately for all of us, though, natural gas is far more than just a replacement utility-scale fossil fuel.

SoCalGas, a division of Sempra Energy, provides natural gas not just to power plants, but to 21 million customers in Southern California. “Now you’re cooking with gas,” is the Bob Hope adage from the 30’s and 40’s as natural gas began to be piped into homes for heating and cooking. To look at it another way, the leaking Aliso Canyon gas storage facility supplies millions of kitchen ovens with the blue flame prized by home chefs.

But to see the true cost of natural gas we need to look beyond the burner.

The environmental and community health damage caused by fracked natural gas extraction is well known at this point, and science is confirming its danger with every new peer-reviewed study.

Californians’ attention turned to the problem of aging pipeline infrastructure in our cities, when a suburban neighborhood in the town of San Bruno was destroyed in a 2010 natural gas pipeline explosion. Then Nathan Phillips at Boston University used gas analyzers to develop 3-D “methane maps” in urban environments, estimating 7-15 percent of global manmade methane pollution could be coming from pipes in cities bringing natural gas to consumers.

Until Aliso Canyon, we weren’t looking at the step in the supply chain before urban pipelines—storage facilities. Refined natural gas has been stored in former oil wells at Aliso Canyon since the 70’s; when the oil wells were emptied, they were repurposed for storage of natural gas. The volcano of methane that is now California’s largest single source of greenhouse gases is coming from a broken well that was last inspected in 1976. The LA Weekly reports that the well’s safety valve was inexplicably removed in 1979. Among the hundred at the facility, other wells also lack safety valves.  

Aliso Canyon was a disaster waiting to happen. The facility was old, poorly managed and experienced abysmal oversight. Gov. Jerry Brown finally declared a state of emergency last week, directing state agencies to take unprecedented action on underground gas storage in the Golden State.

There are more than 300 similar facilities around the country. We need to to make sure that we don’t have other climate and health disasters waiting to happen in California and around the U.S. We need:

  • An emergency statewide effort to shut down facilities that lack basic safety equipment, including Aliso Canyon. Gas storage wells that lack shut off valves should be taken offline before other Porter Ranches happen.
  • Increased oversight and management of these facilities.
  • Support for residents affected by pollution, including health care as well as financial compensation.
  • A rapid transition for consumers away from gas. The Solutions Project has mapped out a 100 percent fossil fuel free plan by 2050. This transition would protect communities from underground storage risks, gas line leakage and explosions like the one in San Bruno.

We’ve already wrapped our heads around a rooftop solar revolution and what it might mean for distributed energy generation rather than big boxes of fossil fuels. Now it’s time to start planning to get rid of the blue flames on our stovetops, water heaters and furnaces. There is an electric or solar electric alternative to every natural gas appliance. We can’t just cut natural gas’s electric cord; we have to cut the pipeline too.

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