By Isobel Whitcomb '17
While the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak was first detected in Oct. 2015, it wasn’t until a video spread online in Dec. 2015 that the man-made disaster caught the public’s attention. The video, filmed in infrared, is completely silent. It is not only void of color and sound, but light and dark are eerily inverted in a negative image of Southern California’s landscape. A plume of black vapor billows high into the air, then moves silently down the rolling hills into the valley below. The infrared footage was not produced with the intention of frightening or angering people; however, the image of the black methane cloud moving slowly and silently across the hills still seems an ominous portent, reflecting the insidious nature of the LA gas leak.
Yet another month has passed since the video of the LA gas leak was published, and news outlets have begun to move on. However, methane continues to spew into the town of Porter Ranch and its surrounding areas at a rate of 1,300 metric tons per day. Although the Southern California Gas Company is attempting to plug the leak, progress is slow. Because several initial attempts were unsuccessful, the company has been forced to drill a second “relief” well that will eventually intersect with the gas pipe deep underground. Once this well is complete, heavy fluids and mud will be pumped into the earth to staunch the flow of gas. But as progress chugs along, more and more residents of nearby neighborhoods find themselves confronting health problems such as bloody noses, breathing difficulty, and headaches. So far, over 2,300 people have evacuated the area due to health difficulties. It is unclear how many will be returning.
One of the largest ramifications of the LA gas leak is the sense of distrust it has sewn not only in the many Porter Ranch residents seeking to relocate permanently, but also throughout the rest of the country as people ask themselves “What is the likelihood of a another major gas leak?” According to several environmental organizations investigating the incident, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the question the public should be asking does not begin with an “if” but a “when.” The high profile leak in Aliso Canyon has revealed major problems with the natural gas industry, which many environmentalists have long considered the cleaner option when compared to oil and coal. The problem with this industry is that it is largely unregulated. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 400 underground methane storage areas in the U.S. are subject to little or no regulation. The lack of regulation has led to unsafe infrastructure and shoddy, leaky pipes. 40% of natural gas pipes are over 50 years old, and of these pipes, many are made of a brittle cast iron which is notorious for breaking easily.
So what is so dangerous about a natural gas leak? One of the most widely understood risks of a methane leak is explosion. Methane is highly flammable, and these incidents occur more widely than many would expect. About every other day over the past decade, an exploding gas main has caused death, injury, or property damage. However, as we have seen in Porter Ranch, there are other dangers to leaking gas. While methane is actually harmless to breathe, natural gas is injected with other chemicals, several of which are known carcinogens. The most dangerous of these chemicals is benzene. While the Southern California Gas Company has deemed concentrations of benzene found in the area around Aliso Canyon safe, public health advocates such as Erin Brokovich have pointed out that there is a dearth of research on the potential health risks posed by many of the other chemicals found in natural gas.
One of the dangers of a gas leak that scientists have only recently begun to understand, however, is its potential to accelerate global warming. When natural gas is burned effectively, it is much cleaner than other fossil fuels, releasing less carbon dioxide and trapping less heat. However, as I mentioned in my article on fracking one year ago, methane (the major component of unburned natural gas) has recently been found to trap 80 times more heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. So when a gas leak occurs, it has the potential to completely offset any environmental benefits offered by natural gas. The Aliso Canyon gas leak alone releases on a daily basis the same amount of methane as 5 million cows. This is significant enough damage to partially negate any progress California has made to reduce emissions over the past year, since Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.
Disasters can have the effect of changing public perceptions. Since the California drought began and Governor Brown declared a state of emergency, the state has made strides towards increasing water conservation and cutting fossil fuel emissions. This month, Governor Brown declared the Aliso Canyon gas leak yet another state of emergency. Perhaps this disaster will open the public’s eyes to a more nuanced understanding of natural gas. It has long been touted as a relatively innocent fossil fuel. However, it has become clear that our understanding of its dangers are less than adequate.