The largest natural gas leak ever recorded is jeopardising health and causing evacuations for thousands of Southern California residents. Two months into it, scientists and engineers still can't figure out a way to contain the seeping gas. It is easily the worst environmental disaster since BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Tellingly, some experts who stopped that leak are working to contain this one.
On October 23 the Southern California Gas Company discovered a leak in its natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, a neighbourhood about 40km northwest from downtown Los Angeles. Experts don't know what caused it, but believe that a well casing failed deep below the surface. It will take at least several more months to find the source and repair the leak, which requires careful drilling far from the tank itself to avoid igniting the gas and causing an explosion.
A relief well is being connected to the leaking well in the hopes that all the gas can be diverted there while engineers try to seal leak. (Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News via AP, Pool)
For two months the leak has been spewing natural gas into the atmosphere at up to 49,895kg per hour. Why is it such a big deal? Although natural gas is a better energy source than coal when it comes to emissions, in its raw form this is the same climate-destroying gas that 195 countries have been trying so hard to keep out of the atmosphere, according to a report by the Environmental Defence Fund, which is tracking the amount of gas leaked in real time:
Methane — the main component of natural gas — is a powerful short-term climate forcer, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released. Methane is estimated to be leaking out of the Aliso Canyon site at a rate of about 62 million standard cubic feet, per day. That's the same short-term greenhouse gas impact as the emissions from 7 million cars.
That's not just bad news for local residents, who are suffering from headaches and trouble breathing (two schools have been relocated for the 2016 semester), it's potentially devastating on a planetary scale. A spokesperson for California's Air Resources Board told Mashable the leak is dumping the equivalent of "eight or nine coal plants" worth of methane into our already fragile climate.
The leak itself is invisible but new infrared video shows a jet of gas pluming into the foothills, which hopefully will bring some awareness to the issue. I admit, even as a Southern California resident I didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Let's hope that not only the leak can be repaired soon but that the state takes swift action to ensure the safe storage and transportation of natural gas in the future. Or better yet, switch the state to entirely renewable energy sources, quick.