One of the worst environmental disasters of the decade is currently underway in a quiet community 40km northwest of Los Angeles. Putrid, methane-rich natural gas has been spewing into the air at an estimated rate of nearly 1300 metric tonnes per day for over two months. Experts are calling it the climate version of the BP oil spill, and the leak isn't going to be contained anytime soon. Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner energy source than oil or coal, because of the lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with burning it. But as this disaster highlights, there are insidious risks to natural gas production. Coupled with weak regulation, they can make this energy source as dirty as the fossil fuels it's meant to replace.
"The science is crystal clear: if you allow the methane to leak, you can wipe out its climate benefits," Tim O'Connor, director of the Environmental Defence Fund's Oil and Gas Program in California told Gizmodo.
In fact, everything about the leak is eerily reminiscent of the oil spills that have blackened oceans and beaches for over a century. These parallels underscore a hard truth: we need to transition off carbon-based fuels entirely to fix our planet.
Like 7 Million Cars
On October 23, a natural gas leak erupted at a storage well beneath the community of Porter Ranch. The well stores gas carried by pipelines from extraction operations hundreds of kilometres away in Texas, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains.
The leak has taken a serious toll on Porter Ranch residents, who for weeks have reported headaches, nausea, dizziness, and other symptoms. Methane is odourless and non-toxic, but natural gas producers inject it with trace quantities of sulfurous chemicals called mercaptans so that leaks can be detected by scent. According to Cyrus Rangan, director of the Toxics Epidemiology Program at LA County's Department of Public Health, the stench from the leak is so foul that residents are having a physiologic response to it.
"People are having very real responses, based on their own sensitivity," Rangan told Gizmodo. "In terms of acute chemical exposures, this is a really, really big deal." Rangan estimates that somewhere between four and five thousand families have filed for help, with 2200 families temporarily relocated so far.
As of this week, the leak has sent over 73,000 metric tonnes of methane gas skyward, according to estimates published by the Environmental Defence Fund, which is providing real-time updates on the situation. And that's a big problem for our climate. Although short-lived in the atmosphere, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with up to 80 times the global warming potential of CO2 in the first twenty years of its lifespan. 73,000 metric tonnes of methane is the global warming equivalent of over six million metric tonnes of CO2. Put another way, the daily emissions from Porter Ranch are essentially equivalent to sticking seven million additional cars on the road.
Plugging the Hole and Fixing the Problem
The first order of business for California is getting this well plugged. After several failed attempts to stop the flow of gas using conventional methods, SoCalGas began drilling a secondary "relief well" on December 4. This well will intersect the leaky one and plug it. "After we intercept the well at more than 8,500 feet (2591m) of measured depth, we will pump heavy fluids and drilling mud into the bottom of the leaking well to stop the flow of gas up from its source, the reservoir," a statement provided to Gizmodo by SoCalGas, which manages the well, reads. "Once the flow of gas has been stopped, we will pump cement into the well to permanently seal the leak."
Here's what the entire operation will look like:
Image via SoCalGas
At last check-in, the drilling operation had reached a depth of 1173m, and — in an important milestone — workers have now identified the 17cm-wide leaky gas pipe using magnetic ranging technology.
Still, SoCalGas warns that plugging the leak and stopping the flow of methane could take until the end of March.
Estimates from California's Air and Resources Board show that total statewide methane emissions rose 25 per cent, dramatically diminishing any climate benefit natural gas industry offers. "SoCalGas recognises the impact this incident is having on the environment," SoCalGas spokesperson Anne Silva told Gizmodo in an email. "While working to stop the gas leak and alleviate its impact on the community, we also have been evaluating options to mitigate the environmental impact."
But whatever mitigation measures SoCalGas takes, the leak highlights the shortcomings of natural gas — and how it's regulated.
Nobody's sure exactly how the Porter Ranch leak started, but a report by the EDF paints a disturbing picture of the state of natural gas pipes around Los Angeles. Nearly 40 per cent of the pipes in SoCalGas' jurisdiction are over 50 years old, and they're leaking everywhere. The EDF reports an average of one methane leak every six to eight kilometres across Pasadena, Inglewood, and Chino, three geographically disparate neighbourhoods. These leaks vary from less than 1000 to over 60,000 litres of natural gas per day. That means tens of thousands more cars worth of carbon emissions thanks to crappy infrastructure.
But this isn't just an LA problem. Another report by the EDF estimated over 13 million metric tonnes of natural gas leakage on US federal and tribal lands in 2013 alone. "Globally, we know that more methane is leaked into the air from oil and gas infrastructure than the entire gas production of Norway — which is one of the world's leading gas producers," O'Connor said. "Methane is a significant problem, and in the US, it can erode the climate benefit of the gas industry."
Nationwide, O'Connor estimates there are approximately 400 underground methane storage areas subject to no federal regulation — other Porter Ranch disasters waiting to happen. "These facilities are exempt from federal requirements for underground injections, and they fly under the radar until catastrophes strike," he said.
And that's not to mention leaks during drilling, transportation through pipelines, and distribution. If we're going to see a net climate benefit from natural gas production over fossil fuels, experts say no more than 3 per cent of gas can leak during the entire production process. In some parts of the country, we're well beyond that figure. In other areas, the amount of leakage simply isn't known.
For the first time this year, the EPA has introduced national standards in the US that would directly regulate methane emissions from oil and gas facilities built in the future. But as the EDF points out, these rules say nothing about facilities already in operation. If the natural gas industry wants to sell an environmentally-friendly alternative to oil, all of its infrastructure needs to be air-tight.
"We need to think of natural gas as a bridge fuel, " O'Connor said. "It's an energy source that can have a benefit, but that benefit is only realised if you keep it in the pipes."
Top image: Crews from SoCalGas and elsewhere work at a relief well located near Porter Ranch. Image via Dean Musgrove/Los Angeles Daily News/AP