Massive Methane Gas Leak in Southern California is Both a Public Health and Climate Disaster

Posted Dec. 30, 2015

MP3 Interview with Daniel Jacobson, legislative director with the group Environment California, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

methane

On Oct. 23, a large plume of methane gas began leaking from a ruptured well pipe owned by Southern California Gas Company in the upscale community of Porter Ranch, 23 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The leak is fed by the second largest gas storage site in the U.S. at Aliso Canyon that serves 21 million customers. Although methane itself is invisible and odorless, chemicals are added to the gas to give it a tell-tale smell so it can be detected in the case of leaks. Viewed through an infrared camera, the gas can be seen pouring into the atmosphere. Many area residents have been suffering from nausea, headaches, vomiting and other ills since the leak began. The company is paying for hotel stays for thousands of residents while it works to fix what has become both a huge public health and climate disaster.

Half a dozen attempts to kill the well have failed, and the company is now drilling a new well to try to safely divert the gas. The methane leaked so far accounts for 25 percent of the state's total annual methane releases and is undoing much of the state's groundbreaking efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is 86 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than the much more plentiful carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after release, a critical time period for the urgent efforts now underway to get climate change under control.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Daniel Jacobson, legislative director with the group Environment California, who talks about the disaster, its impact, and why it hasn't received the media attention of the last enormous fossil fuel-related disaster, the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

For more information on the health and climate impact of the massive southern California methane leak, visit Environment California at environmentcalifornia.org.

DAN JACOBSON: The photography, the graphics, the pictures coming out of Deepwater Horizon were scary and startling. Both the fireball, the deaths that were involved, but hundreds of millions of gallons of oil that was leaking into the Gulf, the animals that were getting sick and coated in oil, the oil that was washing up on the beaches – that was what was being shown all over the world. This problem is just as great, except instead of black oil oozing onto our beaches, we've got methane gas – which is more potent than CO2 – oozing into our atmosphere, and causing not only a public health nightmare, but also a global warming catastrophe. The amount of methane that's escaping in enough to fill the Empire State Building every single day, which is a startling amount, but will end up being 25 percent of the state's methane emissions for the year. This is a state that needs to become a world leader in reducing global warming pollution, and we know that pollution like methane and other short-lived climate pollutants are significantly more harmful to global warming than CO2.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Even though the national media doesn't seem to have picked up on the seriousness of this disaster, is it a big deal to people in California?

DAN JACOBSON: Oh, yeah, this is a huge story statewide and even one of our most credible newspapers in the state and probably in the country – the Los Angeles Times – has called on Gov. Brown to shut down aging facilities like this because we just can’t do both of those things – both be a climate leader and at the same time continue to allow accidents like this to happen or continue to be the third largest oil producing state in the country. Those two things are not consistent, and if we want to be a leader in solving climate change, we’re going to have to stop storing things like natural gas and stop drilling for oil.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, this is a privately owned facility. Can the state do anything to move this process along, to stop the leak?

DAN JACOBSON: Well, it'll be difficult to get it fixed faster. I think today it was just reported that the gas company has finally figured out where the leak is coming from. That was one of the scariest things, that they didn't even know where it was. Now that they know where it is, they can begin the very long process of trying to figure out how to stop it. It's expected to take until the end of March, so people who live in the area are going to be displaced; they're going to suffer the impacts of over-exposure to methane and to some of the other gases that are put into natural gas to warn us, ironically, of the dangers of when they're there. And yeah, I think the state needs to do more. It needs to force the gas company to protect the citizens who have been impacted by this, to make sure they're not losing any property value or any value because the property values of their houses are going down; and to even more quickly than they are, phase away from natural gas and other fossil fuels and move us more quickly to clean energy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dan Jacobson, what are local residents saying and doing about this? I know the gas company is paying $250 a day to relocate families away from the leak, many of whom are suffering health impacts like nausea, dizziness and rashes. More than 2,600 families have asked to be relocated.

DAN JACOBSON: The local citizens are outraged. Many of them didn't even know they lived so close to a natural gas storage facility and what they're really demanding is, "We want to make sure we get relocated to places that are safe; we want to make sure our kids are safe and there are no schools that are being impacted by this; if there's any loss of value to our property because of this, they want to be compensated for it." And they're also wanting to make sure that these kinds of accidents don't happen to them in the future or to anybody else in the state of California.

People have been exposed to a lot of methane gas and to a lot of other toxic chemicals that are put into natural gas to make it easier to detect (by the odor). And we don't know what the long-term impacts of that are. I don't know that we will know immediately, and if there are tests that can be done that will give us that information. That’s why it’s so important not only to make sure we're protecting these citizens right away, today, tomorrow, next week, next month, but also moving us away from dangerous toxics like natural gas in the first place.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I read that there are a hundred other gas wells in the immediate area. I wonder what’s the likelihood of more disasters like this?

DAN JACOBSON: Well, it's hard to say how likely it is to happen again, but what we're talking about here is fossil fuels, and the thing that we know is that when you try to either dig up fossil fuels, or drill for them or frack for them, or transport them, there's going to be accidents. There always have been, and there always will be. And the storage, which is what we're talking about here, the storage of natural gas, we just can't do it safely for a long time, and that's what's happening here. We have a very old facility whose pipes are cracking and literally bursting at the seams. It's causing an environmental nightmare and a public health nightmare for the people who live around there. And the only way that we're really going to be able to solve this problem is to move away from fossil fuels and to move toward renewable energy like wind and solar.

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