California Environmental Law & Policy Update – January 2016 #3

Environmental and Policy Focus

SoCal Gas Co. expects to cap Porter Ranch gas leak ahead of schedule

CBS Los Angeles – Jan 19 An ongoing natural gas leak that has affected residents in the Porter Ranch-area should be stopped ahead of schedule, Southern California Gas Company said Tuesday. On Monday, the utility company said that it has abandoned efforts to trap and burn the gas released by a huge natural gas leak in Los Angeles, but also said the 12-week-old leak should be stopped by the end of February or sooner. The burn-off plan is being abandoned over fears that it could not be done safely, SoCalGas said in a statement. State regulators had been scheduled to vote Wednesday on the plan, which had been intended to give quicker relief to residents suffering sickness and irritation because of the emissions, but the plan led to worries of explosions in the Porter Ranch neighborhood where the well is located. A relief well that the company began drilling in early December should reach the bottom of the 8,500-foot-deep well by late February or sooner, at which time it will be permanently taken out of service, the SoCalGas statement said.

EPA issues emergency order over Flint water crisis; administrator who oversees Michigan resigns

Washington Post – Jan 21 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Thursday evening that authorities in Michigan had failed to respond properly to an ongoing crisis involving lead-poisoned water in Flint, Mich., saying it would begin testing the city’s water and ordering an independent review of what happened. In addition, the EPA announced that Susan Hedman, the agency’s administrator who oversees Michigan, had resigned in the wake of the crisis. Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, wrote a letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder saying that the EPA was “deeply concerned” about the response in Michigan. She noted that there had been some progress being made by city and state officials, but decried “inadequate transparency and accountability” regarding the results of water testing and other actions. Outrage has mounted in Flint over lead that seeped into the city’s water supply, an issue that has sparked heated criticism and questions about why it took so long for local concerns about the water to be heeded. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in a person’s body, and even low levels of lead in a child’s blood have been found to affect IQ, attention spans and performance in school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Water regulators propose further relaxation of conservation requirements

Los Angeles Times – Jan 15 Water providers that have struggled in recent months to meet conservation targets could soon get some relief under the modified drought rules unveiled last week by state regulators. The proposed changes to California’s emergency drought regulation reward water districts for investing in new local supplies and allow for adjustments to savings goals based on a district’s climate and population growth. The proposal also allows water providers to reduce their “conservation targets” by as much as eight percentage points. When Governor Jerry Brown called for a statewide 25% reduction in urban water use in the spring of 2015, regulators had to scramble to design a regulation that would achieve the cumulative reduction from June 2015 to February 2016. About one-third of the state’s urban water suppliers already are not meeting their savings goals, according to officials from the water board’s office of enforcement. The adjustments should help many of those providers, but Cris Carrigan, the office’s chief, said he “wouldn’t rule out the possibility of future fines.” The water board is expected to consider adopting the extension of the emergency regulation at its Feb. 2 meeting.

President Obama targets methane emissions on federal land

The Hill – Jan 22 The Obama administration is targeting oil and natural gas drillers on federal and American Indian lands in its latest regulatory push to cut down on methane emissions. In a set of standards proposed today by the Interior Department, regulators want to restrict the rates at which drillers deliberately or accidentally release natural gas. The standards are also intended to restrict the deliberate burning of gas that is not captured. This is the latest climate change-related push from the Obama administration, and comes after several organizations this week pronounced 2015 as the warmest year on record. The administration has vowed to crack down not only on carbon dioxide but also on methane. Methane is the main component of natural gas and, though it does not stay in the atmosphere very long, it has more than 25 times the global warming power of carbon. The new standards from Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would mandate that drillers use certain technologies currently available to cut down on gas flaring, periodically inspect their systems for leaks, and replace old, leaky equipment. BLM Director Neil Kornze said more than 80 percent of current wells on federal lands meet the new standards. Although the American Petroleum Institute said drillers do not need regulations as an incentive to reduce waste, the Natural Resources Defense Council asserts that the regulations do not go far enough.

4,000 home development in Gilroy off the table

Gilroy Dispatch – Jan 21 In response to public criticism, the developers of the biggest housing project in Gilroy’s history have withdrawn their proposal to build 4,000 homes, including 1,500 units for “active seniors,” two schools, and parks for the 721-acre tract of farmland. For the development to proceed, the land would have to be annexed by the city and would need approval from Santa Clara County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Gilroy had voted Dec. 7 to approve the environmental impact report for the project. However, the developers temporarily shelved the project on Wednesday, under advisement of Mayor Perry Woodward, to take more time to gain greater public support for the project. Last week, LAFCO and a group of developers filed separate lawsuits to overturn the certification of the environmental impact report prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In its lawsuit, LAFCO contends that the approval of the project by the council was improper and violated CEQA in numerous respects. LAFCO filed suit to stop the plan even before it had a chance to vote on it. The suit says the “site consists of largely prime agricultural land and that the city wants to include these lands in its [Urban Service Area] even as the city has substantial amounts of land within its current boundaries that are vacant or underutilized.” The agency asks the court “to set aside certification of the EIR,” and to rescind all actions related to its approval. Interim City Administrator Ed Tewes said he expects that the lawsuits would be moot if the city agrees Monday to withdraw its request to annex the land for the project. He said the City Council also will consider decertifying the environmental impact report it agreed to in December.