Racking up the damage done by the 2015 methane leak

DR. STEPHEN CONLEY / COURTESY
DR. STEPHEN CONLEY / COURTESY

Aliso Canyon gas storage facility leak secured on Feb. 18

Since Oct. 23, the Porter Ranch community in the San Fernando Valley has been the victim of the methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility — one that was said to be discovered in a well 3,000 feet underground. While the cause of it is still unknown, the leak persisted for months and was secured on Feb. 18.

“It was the largest point source in the U.S.,” said Dr. Stephen Conley, pilot and UC Davis project scientist. “Back in November, there was no news coverage of the leak because nobody had any clue how large it was. After our first flight of November, that all changed.”

During his early November flight, Conley completed the first measurement of methane in the area surrounding the leak.

It wasn’t until Feb. 11 that the Southern California Gas Co. announced that the leak was temporarily controlled. Even though some progress was made, an entire week passed until the leak was permanently sealed through the use of heavy fluids and thick cement.

Conley remains optimistic regarding the recent actions to stop the leak.

“The leak totaled five billion cubic feet — there were still another 80 billion cubic feet of gas in the reservoir that didn’t leak,” Conley said.

According to Phillip Tran, a UC Davis alumni in Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning, the leak was just as damaging as the BP oil spill in 2010.

“A capping on the leak is definitely helpful,” Tran said. “This leak is one of many causes for future problems associated with global warming, but so too are the millions of other pollutant sources.”

Sixteen weeks of methane being released into the environment passed before any action was taken.

“The fact that this leak had the same 20-year climate impact as burning a billion gallons of gasoline is alarming,” Tran said.

Methane is the main component of natural gas; because of its hydrocarbon structure, leaks can only be detected when methane is burned . Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more efficient at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

This spells bad news for the environment and climate. The 16-week leak released an estimated 107,000 tons of methane into the global community. As of late February, the leak is roughly equivalent to 1,666,737 passenger vehicles being driven for one year, or even 2,837,634 tons of waste sent to a landfill.

The chemical and environmental effects have had serious ramifications for residents of the Porter Ranch community. In high enough concentrations, methane can occupy the same place as oxygen in blood cells. This methane exposure results in headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness and loss of coordination, all of which residents have experienced as a result of the leak.

More than 2,000 residents have evacuated their homes and two schools in the Los Angeles School District have closed. In addition, gas has been seeping into homes in the area, causing decreases in resale value due to safety concerns.

Now that the leak has been contained, the concern is now how to prevent major incidents like this from happening again. The leak has led to new emergency regulations for California’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources. The new regulations will address inspections and the need for risk management plans.

“Here’s the biggest lesson: cheap energy ain’t cheap,” Conley said. “The well that blew out was 61 years old. If we want to stop leaks like this, we need more maintenance [and] more inspections to upgrade the infrastructure. That costs money, and payers typically aren’t excited about paying higher rates.”

Active environmentalists like Tran hope that the leak will prompt changes in how the community sees events like this shaping the global community.

“I think a positive way to look at this event is that it can hopefully prompt our government and companies to take a closer look at the natural gas extraction process,” Tran said. “Hopefully this event can bolster public support and force companies and government to take a new perspective on the process as a whole.”

Written by: Alan Castillo — features@theaggie.org