One Broken Pipe Is Leaking A Huge Amount Of Methane

Think Progress
By Samantha Page

A gas storage site in Los Angeles has been leaking for more than a month, in what environmentalists say should be a “wake-up call” for regulators about the state’s aging gas infrastructure.

The Aliso Canyon storage well, about 30 miles northwest of downtown, is releasing 50,000 kilograms of methane an hour, according to an estimate from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The Southern California Gas Company discovered the leak on October 23 and has been unable to contain it.

“This is sort of the worst case scenario,” EDF’s Tim O’Connor told ThinkProgress. His group estimates the storage well has lost about 2 percent of its gas.

Because natural gas is 80 percent methane, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas, the amount Aliso Canyon has leaked will have the impact of 2.6 to 2.9 million metric tons of carbon for the next 20 years. Put another way, every day the leak continues, it single-handedly accounts for 25 percent of California’s total methane emissions.

Methane emissions from the Aliso Canyon leak versus the rest of the state. The black line indicates potential range of values.

A spokesperson for the company said it was impossible to determine how much gas had leaked at this time. “We are committed to — and we will — stop the flow of gas, and are working with some of the world’s best well management experts to seal the leak as quickly and as safely as possible,” Kristine Lloyd told ThinkProgress in an email. “We are unable to provide a specific timetable, but the relief well process could take several months. While the relief well is built, we will continue to try to stop the flow of gas by pumping fluids down the well.”

In addition to being a climate problem, the leak might pose a public health issue. The gas in the well has been treated with an odorant — in order to let homeowners and gas company workers know when there is a leak. That odorant is causing problems in the area.

“Longterm exposure of irritants in a very pungent form can have really deleterious effects,” O’Connor said. The storage well is also a former oil well, which means it could have benzene and other chemicals. The gas company has received hundreds of complaints, including nausea, dizziness, and nosebleeds from the smell. Local groups, such as the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, are pressuring the company to shut down the leak as quickly as possible.

California was already attempting to curb methane emissions — and improve its gas infrastructure.

Last fall, the governor signed legislation directing the California Public Utilities Commission to prioritize natural gas pipeline safety and infrastructure. As part of that legislation, California’s utilities submitted natural gas leak audits to the PUC. In that data, leaks accounted for less than 1 percent of the gas moving through the system. Critically, though, unaccounted for gas loss was “many times larger than gas lost due to known leaks and emissions.”

In addition, there were more leaks in 2014 than there had been in 2013.

The audit also found leaks that were 30 years old, O’Connor said. “You’ve got a problem with your infrastructure and your management of your infrastructure if you’ve been watching it leak for 30 years.”

EDF is hoping this leak will help draw attention to the state’s issue.

“We want to use this particular leak as an important marker, highlighting something we’ve been saying for a long time,” O’Connor said. “We have an aging infrastructure.”

When O’Connor was asked if the leak at the 50-year-old Aliso Canyon well was the canary in the coalmine, he told ThinkProgress:

“The canary has already died.”