The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

California Methane Leak

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As you may already be aware, California is leaking.

More specifically, a giant natural gas storage facility just north of Los Angeles is leaking, and the amount of methane coming out of this thing is huge. It’s been going on since October and is likely to go right on until March. My Facebook feed has been filling up with dire warnings about Armageddon, but the nightly news has been strangely quiet.

So, what’s the story with this leak, how bad is it really, and is it really being nationally ignored?

It’s easy to find a detailed description of the problem online, so another detailed exposition seems superfluous. Here is just a quick summary to get us all on the same page.

The storage tank in question is actually the space in the rock where a huge pool of petroleum used to be. Industry pumped the petroleum out and sold it and then decided to use the empty space for temporary storage of natural gas. Basically, the owner, the Southern California Gas Company (or SoCal Gas) wanted to be able to keep a lot of inventory on hand so as to be able to respond quickly to changes in price and demand. This is a storage tank bigger than anything humans could actually build and it is accessible only by a well sunk deep in the rock.

SoCal Gas has a lot of these things, but the Aliso Canyon facility is the second-largest in the Western US. 86 billion cubic feet of capacity–that’s a cave that, if actually cube-shaped, would be almost half a mile on a side. It’s almost a mile and a half underground.

I’m not sure whether anyone knows when the leak started, but SoCal Gas found it on October 23rd. Since then, the rate of leakage has varied, and apparently it’s only measured occasionally, so no one knows exactly how much has leaked, but it’s probably around 50,000 kilograms per hour, or about 7% of the nation’s total natural gas emissions. Big.

Natural gas, remember, is mostly methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The term is used to specify methane from fossil sources, as opposed to biogas.

Methane is not toxic (though if you tried to breathe too much of the stuff you’d suffocate for lack of oxygen), so the main threat here is through the greenhouse effect. But the gas in the storage facility is mixed with mercaptan, the stuff used to give gas a recognizable odor. So the whole situation quite literally stinks, and while mercaptan is not considered dangerous, is it very mildly toxic and area residents (human and otherwise) are experiencing symptoms like headaches and nausea–and for some, more serious symptoms. Small amounts of other chemicals, present in the gas (including benzene, which is seriously dangerous) may also be contributing factors.

No one knows exactly why the well is leaking, but SoCal Gas might have been able to shut the thing off if they hadn’t decided to remove rather than replace a critical valve (and lie about it) back in 1979. For this and other reason, the company is now being sued within an inch of its life. Governor Brown has declared a state of emergency, but did so in such a way as to make sure that neither taxpayers nor ratepayers would pick up the costs. California is not playing around on this one.

SoCal has tried to pump mud down into the access well to plug the leak, but that has not worked. Now they are drilling a second well that is supposed to intersect the first–for reasons I do not understand, this is supposed to make the leak easier to plug. Drilling a well that deep will take a long time, which is why the leak might not be plugged until March.

The whole situation is bizarrely reminiscent of the Gulf oil spill, both in terms of its scale and in terms of of the technical detail of plugging the well. But there are some important differences, too–notably, methane is invisible and non-toxic, making this leak insidious. Once the well is plugged and the mercaptan disperses, it will be easy to pretend the whole thing is over. There will be no tar balls washing up on scenic beaches, no disturbing fish and dolphin kills from this one. But the methane will remain in the atmosphere, warming the planet further, for roughly a century.

So is this climate Armageddon?

Not really in any way it wasn’t before. This leak is huge, for a single leak, and it is enough to have a real impact on what strategies we use to bring our emissions down; to meet our goals, we’ll have to work even harder, now. But at the same time, the US alone is producing lots more methane–from other, smaller natural gas leaks, from landfills, and from the guts of our huge herds of cattle. And even adjusting for its greater power as a greenhouse gas, methane still only produces less than a 6th as much warming as carbon dioxide does because there is so much less of it. The real heavy-hitter is still carbon dioxide.

The bottom line is that this leak is not the end of the world all by itself, but plugging it up isn’t going to save the world by itself, either. It’s just another few straws on an already badly overloaded camel. And that could explain the relative lack of news coverage.

It’s true that the California leak rarely makes the major news outlets. I have not done an exhaustive study on the subject, but a search of online records and the memories of my social media contacts does suggest it’s not being treated like front-page news by anybody. If you don’t follow environmental news specifically, and are not connected by social media to anyone who does, you might well miss the story completely. But it’s not being blacked out, either–CNN and NPR have both covered the story on their websites, though I am not clear yet whether either did so on air, and there are plenty of articles in the online/print media, including some on mainstream sites.

Broadcast media simply cannot cover as many stories as print/online media can. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And this genuinely does not sound like the top-tier disaster that some people are making it out to be. I don’t think anybody’s trying to keep this quiet in any deliberate way. Instead, I think we’re witnessing the silence of a mainstream journalism that still doesn’t consider the environment generally, or climate change specifically, very important.

Maybe we need to call or write in again and ask them to cover this? Because while the California leak is bad, media undercoverage of a major issue is far worse.

The other thing that’s far worse is that this is not the only large methane storage facility there is–and while California at least is taking steps to improve safety, at the moment we don’t know when the next leak will come or how big it will be.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “California Methane Leak

  1. Pingback: Plastic | The Climate in Emergency

  2. Pingback: Retrospective | The Climate in Emergency

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