Is it time to ask what happens to Southern California and beyond if the 100,000 pounds per hour of methane pouring out of the 86-billion-cubic-foot Aliso Canyon underground natural gas reservoir near Porter Ranch cannot be stopped?
A new video, shot with a special infrared camera for environmental nonprofit Earthworks, shows the usually invisible giant methane plumes coming from the leak at the bottom of an 8,750-foot-deep well. When viewed in that fashion, it is easier to see how observers have begun to liken it to the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
Southern California Gas Company tried to cap the 2-month-old leak after the presence of noxious gases in the upscale community a mile away could no longer be ignored. They failed. Amid criticism that they had waited too long to begin repair work and then didn't have a very good Plan A, they began work on Plan B.
The company is drilling a relief well to intercept the pipeline before the gas reaches the break. It will take months to reach the 7-inch-wide pipe and success is not assured. They are trying not to set off a spark and ignite gas. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has banned low-flying airplanes in the area for fear of ignition by an engine.
In the meantime, the leak is now one-quarter of the state's entire methane emissions. Methane is a far more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the region's atmosphere. That could accentuate the slow-roasting effects of climate change already in the offing.
“We have never had an escape this large,” SoCal Gas Vice President Gillian Wright told Marketplace. “I have to really emphasize this is an extremely rare event. The extent and the difficulty of resolving this leak are highly, highly unusual.”
Around half the 5,000 families nearby have fled, and the other half would like to join them. Assistance has been skimpy and late. The gas, which is shipped in from around the Southwest and stored in the natural shale reservoir, is volatile and noxious in its own right, but also has Mercaptan added to make the otherwise odorless gas detectable. To that end, it smells like rotten eggs and causes headaches and worse. But there are other gases in smaller quantities involved and the long-term effects cannot be calculated.
Lawsuits have been filed by the city of Los Angeles and individuals in a class-action.
The unfolding disaster has put a crimp in 10-year-old plans to add 188 homes along the community's border, on lots averaging 18,500 square feet. The development is to include a new 114-acre nature preserve, with horse riding trails and other recreational opportunities, on unincorporated county land currently being annexed by the city.
Last week, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, as a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), asked for a moratorium on annexation of the property. He called the leak “catastrophic.”