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Unlucky Town

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As usual, no one saw it coming. But when disaster struck last October for the residents of Porter Ranch, California, no one could see it arrive, either. The plume of methane gushing from Southern California Gas’s storage field in nearby Aliso Canyon was invisible. But people sure could smell it. The rotten-egg smell of methyl mercaptan, which is added to natural gas to help detect leaks, was inescapable.

Today that gas is still leaking, with no guarantee of when it can be stopped. At least Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency — albeit more than two months after the leak was detected.

It didn’t take anywhere near that long for people closest to the natural gas storage facility to start getting sick. So far, more than 2,000 residents in the northwestern corner of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley have been forced to leave their homes. Others are being forced to make do with air purifiers the gas company has started giving away — hardly reassuring if you’re worried about exposure to carcinogenic benzene (another byproduct of the leak).

Hindsight, once again, is 20/20 when it comes to a fossil fuel threat. Suddenly, it’s obvious that a giant natural gas storage facility next to a major population center carries a real risk. And, to his credit, earlier this week, Governor Brown also ordered strong new safeguards for California’s natural gas storage facilities. If this disaster does lead, as it should, to stronger safeguards at the more than 400 hundred such facilities around the nation, that’s all to the good.

Even more urgently, though, we should help the thousands of families that have already been harmed by this disaster. That means holding SoCalGas responsible for both relocation and healthcare expenses. Those families also deserve peace of mind — which means the gas storage facility at Aliso Canyon should be shut down at least until the problems with its aging and unsafe infrastructure have been addressed — if not forever. If you live in L.A., consider showing your support by attending a rally and hearing this Saturday in Granada Hills.

But we’ve got to do a lot more than simply react to yet another fossil fuel disaster. Hindsight’s useful, but the only way to prevent future disasters is to start practicing some foresight. Unless we allow ourselves to clearly see how fossil fuels affect our future, we’ll find ourselves in this same situation all over again.

Here’s an example of how not to do that: SoCalGas’s webpage today features a photo of a young man kissing a baby. The tagline: “Protecting the Future: Part of the Clean Energy Solution.”

So far, the Aliso Canyon leak has dumped nearly 80,000 metric tons of methane into our atmosphere — enough to make this one leak the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California. If that’s how we protect the future, I’d hate to see how we go about destroying it.

Because methane is such a potent climate pollutant (more than 80 times worse than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame), those emissions are equivalent to the climate pollution produced by more than 330,000 cars in a year. For California, which has the most ambitious emissions-reduction goals in the nation, that’s a colossal setback.

Pretending that natural gas is a “clean energy solution” leads to all kinds of magical thinking. It’s a mindset that can lead to compromising on safety, which is certainly what happened at Aliso Canyon. When, years ago, a safety valve began to fail in the well that is leaking today, the “solution” adopted by SoCalGas was to remove it. Legally, they weren’t required to replace it. Incredibly, they didn’t. You can fix the law, but you can’t fix stupid. Mix stupid with fossil fuels and disaster is always just around the corner.

It’s certainly not as though the American people don’t care about this stuff. When the EPA proposed the first-ever safeguards for methane pollution last year, nearly one million of us submitted comments in support of them. That’s important because, when it comes to climate emissions, we have zero margin of safety. We can’t afford mistakes — especially stupid ones.

As long as we rely on fossil fuels for energy — and much of the methane that’s leaking from Aliso Canyon was intended for California’s power plants — we will be fighting climate disruption with both hands tied behind our backs. Only when we achieve 100 percent clean energy will we truly be able to safeguard our health, our environment, and our climate. For the unlucky people in the path of the next fossil fuel disaster — and they could be anywhere — that day can’t come soon enough.

One more thing: No one saw this disaster coming, but that’s no excuse for letting the next one happen. Let President Obama know that it’s time for the entire country to adopt strong safeguards against methane leaks from aging oil and gas infrastructure like that in Aliso Canyon.

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