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Huge Southern California Methane Leak Won't Be Plugged for Months

The mother of all natural gas leaks can be found near Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County. The methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking from an underground storage facility known as the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field owned by SoCalGas Company.
December 16, 2015, 2pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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The mother of all methane leaks can be found near Porter Ranch in Los Angeles County. What's leaking is not a production well but an underground storage facility known as the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field. It's been leaking methane at the rate of 100,000 pounds of methane per hour according to Ingrid Lobet, a reporter for inewsource and Inside Energy whose article appears in Marketplace. [Listen here].

"Put another way, every day the leak continues, it single-handedly accounts for 25 percent of California’s total methane emissions," writes Samantha Page for Climate Progress.

Methane, "the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States," according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period." However, it's lifetime in the atmosphere is 12 years while C02's lifetime may be "thousands of years" per the EPA.

Tim O'Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Oil and Gas Program in California, said the gas gushing from Aliso Canyon is roughly equal to that emitted by six coal-fired power plants or 7 million extra cars. "People I speak with who are experts in the field say this is the biggest, most complex leak that they have ever seen," he said.

In addition, the methane is so concentrated that it poses a severe threat to public health, causing the evacuation of 1,800 families from Porter Ranch. In addition, "(p)ilots flying low have been told by the Federal Aviation Administration to stay clear of the plume for fear of igniting the vapors," writes Lobet

The leak was detected in October and is not expected to be repaired for months, as incredible as that may sound. The environmental calamity points to two serious shortcomings in the California energy regulatory system.

First, the issue of liability has prevented the state from becoming more proactive in fixing the leak.

Steve Bohlen, the scientist who heads California's oil and gas agency [Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR)], said making sure that Southern California Gas Company [subsidiary of Sempra Energy, based in San Diego,] seals the well quickly and appropriately has "consumed the attention" of his division.

While DOGGR has "directed them to build a relief well (and) prepare a second relief well," Bohlen said "if the state is too directive, it risks assuming liability for the consequences."

"This is Southern California Gas' problem to fix," Bohlen stressed.

Second, while the leak originates from a broken well "perhaps more than a mile deep," it is a well "used to inject gas into an old sandstone oil field for storage," writes Lobet. 

Officials who have focused on reducing methane emissions because of the impact on the atmosphere have paid more attention to regulations on pipelines and wells and the other places from which methane escapes.

O'Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said, "I think we have found a regulatory gap."

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Published on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 in Marketplace
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