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Methane leak hits climate and residents

Lena Nozizwe, Porter Ranch, CaliforniaFebruary 1, 2016

A leaking methane well in a Los Angeles suburb has turned quiet residents into loud protesters. With no end in sight after months, comparisons are being made to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Climate impacts are expected.

Mother of six-year-old poses with sign during a meeting on the methane leak in Southern California (Photo: Lena Nozizwe)
Image: Lena Nozizwe

There is still no certain end in sight more than three months after Southern California Gas Company officials revealed that a massive leak is spewing natural gas from their storage facility located in the affluent neighborhood of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County, southern California.

In addition to environmental damage, the worst gas leak in California's history - discovered on October 23, 2015 - has led to school closures and thousands of evacuations, while the Federal Aviation Administration even called for a temporary no-fly zone in the area.

Accusations of negligence

In a letter to customers affected by the leak, Dennis Arriola - president and CEO of Southern California Gas - wrote: "Our highest and most urgent priority is to stop the leak. We have hundreds of our employees, expert consultants and suppliers working around the clock to resolve this issue."

Arriola said that his team is working as safely and quickly as possible. SoCal Gas is saying the leak should be plugged in February.

But accusations have arisen that the leak was the result of negligence.

"Would he have said that if he was not caught? Why was he not thinking about those things before it happened?" said Mark Morris, vice president of the Save Porter Ranch community activist group.

The group has been tracking the Aliso Canyon storage facility, which is home to more than 100 wells, including the one that is leaking.

Mark Morris, vice-president of Save Porter Ranch, poses with protest sign during a meeting on the methane leak in Southern California (Photo: Lena Nozizwe)
Morris and others with Save Porter Ranch initiated the #shutitalldown campaign to protect the areaImage: Lena Nozizwe

Southern California's air quality regulator also recently filed a civil lawsuit in superior court against SoCal Gas, blaming the leak on operational failures.

Explosion and blowout concerns

Multiple attempts to plug the leak from above ground have not only failed, but state regulators say such efforts have even destabilized the area while increasing the risk of fire.

In addition, a plan to capture and burn the flammable gas - which is mostly methane - has been put on hold. Public utilities officials are concerned about the potential for an explosion, or a massive blowout that could lead to an even larger leak.

SoCal Gas has also been drilling relief wells to intercept the gas. The next step would be to pump cement to the bottom of the well in order to permanently shut it down. Officials say they need to drill 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) deep in order to do that. They estimate the operation will take at least through this month.

But in the meantime, methane gas continues to flow into the atmosphere.

Relief well intended to reduce underground pressure for methane gas leak (Photo: Southern California Gas Company)
This relief well is hoped to slow the methane leakImage: Southern California Gas Company

Powerful greenhouse gas

Since late October, more than 90 metric tons of the gas have escaped from well SS25. That adds up to about a quarter of California's current methane emissions.

While carbon dioxide is the gas most often associated with global warming, methane or CH4 is also a major contributor.

"The warming caused by methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide - it's very, very important and harmful greenhouse gas," said Jon Christensen, a faculty member at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California Los Angeles.

The amount that's estimated to be leaking from this well has been compared to nine coal plants, or 7 million cars, he explained. Since there are about 13 million registered cars in California, "that's like increasing the number of cars on the road by 50 percent," Christensen pointed out.

'Deepwater Horizon' of methane

Erin Brockovich, a key player in building a successful lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Company for contaminating groundwater, is now working with the law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg to help residents sue SoCal Gas for damages associated with the methane leak.

Brockovich is among the observers to describe the leak in Porter Ranch as the equivalent of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill.

On April 20, 2010, an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon Macondo oil rig released 200 million gallons of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days. Eleven workers were killed during the initial blast in what turned out to be the biggest marine oil spill in US history.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead collects on top of the water off the coast of Louisiana on May 6, 2010 (Photo Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Oil that leaked from the Deepwater Horizon offshore well left a highly visible trailImage: Getty Images

Widely publicized photographs of sea life covered in oil were daily reminders of the environmental damage.

But since methane is not visible to the naked eye, environmentalists are concerned that out of sight may mean out of mind.

Boston University professor Nathan Phillips says while he does not want to diminish the loss of life during the BP spill, he sees the parallels between both catastrophes.

'Human are like seabirds'

"This is a contamination of atmosphere rather than ocean waters. It is more of respiratory version of [Deepwater Horizon]. In a way, the humans are like the seabirds that you saw suffering from the BP disaster," Phillips said. People at Porter Ranch are the most immediate and direct victims, he explained.

Under the auspices of the Massachusetts-based non-profit environmental organization HEET, Nathan Phillips and Bob Ackley have been tracking the air residents are breathing at ground level by driving through the affected neighborhoods with a specially outfitted van that monitors methane.

Phillips said that around Porter Ranch, measurements registered more than 100 parts per million - some of the highest readings he has ever encountered. He says they were only measuring methane, but he believes it is critical to get accurate measurements of other toxins that may be in the air, potentially including benzene, toluene and xylene.

So far area residents have had the strongest reaction to mercaptan, which is routinely added to natural gas. That is because in addition to being invisible, natural gas is also odorless. The additive that smells like rotten eggs is designed to warn of leaks.

But residents in the area say mercaptan has also made them sick. Physical symptoms include rashes, nausea, headaches and nosebleeds. Children and animals are especially vulnerable.

Closeup of relief well intended to reduce underground pressure for methane gas leak (Photo: Southern California Gas Company)
Is the methane gas leak an invisible climate threat?Image: Southern California Gas Company

As a result of the leak, some 3,000 households have relocated. Two schools have temporarily moved out of the area as well.

Setting back California's greenhouse gas agenda

The leak coincides with California Governor California Jerry Brown's ambitious agenda to reduce the state's greenhouse gas 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

"This has just erased four years of efforts - and it is not over yet," said UCLA professor Christensen. "If it continues at this rate for a couple of months or longer, it could erase as much as a decade of our efforts."

Save Porter Ranch's Mark Morris believes the solution is not just to stop the leak, but to also shut down the entire Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. The grassroots neighborhood activists started campaigning for this almost a year and a half before the leak.

Southern California Gas provides service to 21 million customers.

Activist Morris says the leak is a sign that it is time to serve those customers in a way that does not involve fossil fuel.