Because this story concerns the dangers of an invisible gas, the best way to start out is with some infrared footage of said gas being vomited out of a mountain. The footage below, taken on December 17, was released by the Environmental Defense Fund and shows a geyser of methane erupting from the Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon storage facility above the community of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles.

Here’s another shot of the leak, sped up to 60 times normal speed.

It’s not a pretty picture and, as you may have guessed, it’s pretty terrible for the environment. The people of Porter Ranch are also less than enthused.

What Is That Stuff?

The gas you see leaking out of the mountain is methane. When you see a sticker on the back of a bus that says, “This vehicle runs on natural gas,” that is the natural gas they’re talking about. Methane has been touted as a “bridge fuel” between the declining era of fossil fuels and the rising era of clean and renewable energies. It’s cheap, it’s abundant and it emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal. However, clean energy advocates dislike natural gas for two reasons: One, it arguably slows the transition to cleaner fuel sources like wind and solar, and two, it puts methane into the atmosphere.

Image: Creative Commons

Image: Creative Commons

When scientists talk about the dangers of global warming due to greenhouse gases, the two most problematic gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Both trap heat from the sun and cause the planet to warm faster than normal. And while methane does not linger in the atmosphere like CO2, it makes up for it by being much, much better at trapping heat.

As David Doniger, Director of the Climate & Clean Air Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains, “methane packs most of its climate-changing punch into a shorter period…. Over a 20-year timeframe, methane is 86 times more powerful than CO2. In fact, about a third of the warming effects felt over the next couple of decades will be from methane emissions released in the near-term.”

The Aliso Canyon leak began on October 23, 2015, and expels some 110,000 pounds of methane into the atmosphere every hour. It has been called the worst environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill and currently accounts for one quarter of California’s total methane emissions. “In terms of aggregate greenhouse gas emissions, it is far greater than the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said Tim O’Connor, director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) oil and gas program.

There’s also the fact that methane is heavier than air, so when the wind dies down the gas pours over the surrounding area. That leads us to the next big question.

Is It Dangerous to Humans?

If you were locked in a confined space with methane, that would be very bad. An asphyxiant, methane can displace the oxygen you need to breathe, which can result in suffocation and unconsciousness. It’s also highly flammable.

A methane flare from a mining operation on the North Dakota Bakken shale (Image: Creative Commons)

A methane flare from a mining operation on the North Dakota Bakken shale (Image: Creative Commons)

According to experts, there are few long-term medical risks associated with being exposed to the gas, but that is not to say there aren’t unpleasant short-term effects. Households around Aliso Canyon have complained of headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. The methane leaking from from the well also contains mercaptans (added to the colorless and odorless gas to make it detectable), which have a nasty, sulphurous smell.

It’s also worth mentioning that studies have noted higher rates of illness in people living near natural gas wells. One 2014 paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that households located less than one kilometer from fracking sites were twice as likely to suffer from respiratory problems than households located twice as far away.

In response to the pungent smell and dizzying effects of the methane, more than 2,000 households around Aliso Canyon have accepted funds from the Southern California Gas Company, which owns the leaking well, to temporarily relocate. Two local schools have also been moved to a different neighborhood.

In December, the L.A. City Attorney filed a lawsuit against SoCalGas. “We’re suing to require everything necessary to stop the leak, assure this never happens again, counteract the consequences of dangerous emissions and hold the Gas Company accountable for the harm it’s caused,” said Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer in a statement. The lawsuit was filed in addition to several resident lawsuits already underway.

How Did This Happen?

Abandoned gas well. (Image Credit: Creative Commons)

Abandoned gas well. (Image Credit: Creative Commons)

The short answer is, we don’t know. The long answer is, it was probably just a matter of time.

Two recent studies by NASA and NOAA have shown that the overall methane emissions in the Los Angeles basin are 61 percent higher than originally estimated. A good portion of this is due to leaky natural gas pipelines. According to the EDF, almost 40 percent of the pipes under SoCalGas jurisdiction are more than 50-years-old. The pipes are old, and they leak, and are in dire need of replacement. Unfortunately this oversight is not limited to California and SoCalGas; the problem is nationwide.

Why Hasn’t the Leak Been Fixed Yet?

The first attempt to fix the leak was made the day after it began. According to Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, SoCalGas injected the well with mud and brine, a cocktail of water, potassium chloride and bentonite clay. They were blocked by an ice plug (formed by the bonding of methane and water molecules) about 470 feet down.

The damaged Aliso Canyon well, also known as Standard Sesnon 25 (SS-25), extends down 8,748 feet into the ground. It sits atop one of the largest natural gas repositories in the country, almost one cubic mile in volume. Once upon a time, it contained an abundance of oil. By the ‘70s, the oil began to run dry and SoCalGas purchased the land to store natural gas. Quite a lot of it is stored underground, hence why the leak can emit the gaseous equivalent of seven million cars, or six coal-fired power stations, and keep right on chugging. This will become more relevant in a moment.

Image via SoCalGas

Image via SoCalGas. Click to embiggen.

When SoCalGas hit the ice plug, they used antifreeze to melt it. That worked, but it didn’t solve their problem. The gas escaping from the well is doing so at about 2,700 pounds per square inch, requiring at least that much force to seal it with brine. SoCalGas made seven attempts to get the brine down to the leak, but eventually quit. According to Marshall, engineers worry that pushing too hard may rupture the pipes and create an even larger leak.

So now, while it considers other options, SoCalGas is drilling two relief wells to reach the layer of nonporous rock that forms the “capstone” of the repository. This will be done in an attempt to intercept the seven inch pipe where it is believed (though not confirmed) the leak is located. Marshall told the Los Angeles Times that the maneuver “is a little like trying to hit a quarter-inch target from the distance of a football field.” Drilling on the first relief well began on December 4; drilling on the second is expected to begin by January 20. 

According to Anne Silva, a spokesperson for SoCalGas, this process will not be completed until late February, or even late March. If the well continues to bleed methane at the current rate (62 million cubic feet per day, according to the EDF), that means we can expect, at minimum, another 3.47 billion cubic feet of methane to enter the atmosphere before the leak is sealed.

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