Methane Leaks Cause More than Just Headaches

Have you heard of the natural gas leak in California? While 87,000 tons of methane released into the air in California since October should be creating national headlines, unfortunately they are not. News site Motherboard Vice deems this “the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill in 2010.” Yet the 2000 people evacuated and $14,000,000 of natural gas wasted still has not grabbed the attention of most of the American public and media. While impactful to the environment, surrounding citizens, and employees of SoCal Gas (the energy utility company responsible), natural gas leaks are not uncommon. This will compose less than 1 percent of the U.S.’s natural gas output. If 87,000 tons is less than 1% of natural gas emissions per year, it is clear that the U.S. has a problem with its natural gas leaks and emissions.

In the U.S., natural gas is the source of 28 percent of all the energy consumed, and it heats 51 percent of all homes. Natural gas is made from organic material, which still holds captured solar energy that plants captured while they were alive. This is suppressed under sediment. Over time, natural gas escapes the sediment and percolates through rock pores. Once it reaches a layer of impermeable rock, the gas collects. This gas is eventually harvested by companies to use as fuel. Natural gas is composed of 80 percent methane, CH4. This means that when natural gas leaks, methane leaks, making the oil and gas industry the largest emitter of methane in the U.S. Methane emissions are harmful to the environment because methane is a greenhouse gas. While it only remains in the atmosphere for ten years, methane is better at absorbing energy than CO2,  and it leads to the production of ozone, another greenhouse gas. For this reason, the Environmental Defense Fund says, “about 1/4 of the anthropogenic global warming we’re experiencing today is due to methane emissions.” Therefore, reduction of methane emissions would slow the progression of global climate change.

CO2, CH4, N2O sources of emissions. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

CO2, CH4, & N2O sources of emissions.
Photo Credit: Global Warming Art via Wikimedia Commons.

Aliso Canyon Gas storage field, located in Southern California, is the site of the leak. This is the largest storage field in the western United States. While the cause of the leak is unknown, Motherboard Vice reports that “more than 38 percent of the pipes in Southern California Gas Company’s territory are more than 50 years old, and 16 percent are made from corrosion and leak-prone materials.” With information like this, it is likely that the leak is due to improper upkeep of equipment. This leak, which has yet to be capped, is a challenge to control, because the leak is located 3000 feet below earth’s surface and flammable. WIRED reports that therefore no tools that could cause a spark can be used, or the gas will combust. Additionally, the construction workers must be careful to avoid other pipes below the ground that, if ruptured, could cause the problem to expand. 4.5 million cars driven, 2.2 million cows, or six power plants running on coal all have the same effect on the environment via greenhouse gas production as the methane leak in Southern California.

The people living around the Aliso Canyon Gas storage field began to complain of a smell of rotten eggs. This smell was the natural gas. Since methane has no smell, mercaptan is added to natural gas so that an unpleasant odor occurs in the case of a gas leak. Aside from the smell, people began to experience the common symptoms of methane exposure. According to the National Institutes of Health, these include headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and weakness. Travel has also been affected. With a plume nearly 1,000 feet high, this area has been deemed a “no-fly zone” because the flammable methane could combust during an interaction with a plane engine.

“The oil and gas industry loses enough methane every year through leaks and intentional venting and flaring to meet the heating and cooking needs of over 5 million homes.” – Environmental Defense Fund

Without proper monitoring, the leaks will not decrease, and more greenhouse gasses will be added to the atmosphere every day. While the EPA has worked to create new guidelines on emissions for oil and gas facilities, these new regulations only apply to new facilities, leaving the old facilities to pollute freely.

SoCal Gas has created a proposal to stop the leak. This plan is to to dig a well that is 2000 feet below the leaking pipe. Then, the gas will seep downward into the confined chamber, where the escape of gas would be stopped. However, this plan still involves the same problems they have been facing, including the slow digging process, due to the potential for ignition. There is a vote to be made over compensation for the surrounding citizens. A proposal has been made to require SoCal to incinerate leaking gas. With the energy produced, the company can provide a monetary compensation to the citizens whose lives have been disrupted during this period. While citizens can potentially be compensated for the harm and trouble done unto them, the environment will not be compensated, but instead will continue to be damaged with every cow, every car, and every leak.

Cover photo: Scott L. via Wikimedia Commons.

About the author

Morgan is a Junior at Collegiate.