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What the Catastrophic Aliso Canyon Methane Leak Teaches Us About Our Addiction to Fossil Fuels

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It’s early December, and I’m siting in a mega-church packed with more than 500 people. They’re here to listen to an update on the efforts to contain an enormous natural gas blowout that occurred more than a month before. Gas from the leak is being blown by prevailing winds right into their community of Porter Ranch, in Los Angeles County, CA.

People are mad.

Hundreds of families have left their homes to get away from the rotten-egg smell of the gas, and moved into temporary homes elsewhere. Children are attending other schools further from the leak, which is spewing some 110,000 pounds of methane per hour from a broken well less than a mile from the neighborhood.

Trust between the gas company, regulators, and community members seems absent.

People question what else is in the gas that might have long-term health impacts. They want to know why many are suddenly reporting headaches and bloody noses.

I’m sitting in this church because my colleague Hilary Lewis and I were invited to Porter Ranch with our infrared gas-finding camera to see what this high profile disaster actually looks like. Before we arrived, the public had no access to images or video of the gas itself, as it’s invisible to the naked eye.

We meet a local organizer in a supermarket parking lot, exit the vehicle, and even my horrible sense of smell instantly reacts to the scent of the gas more than two miles from where we stand. It’s coming from a well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, an 8,000-foot deep sandstone formation — a depleted oil field — that SoCalGas uses to hold vast quantities of gas. In fact, it’s one of the largest gas storage fields in the nation, comprising some 115 extraction and injection wells, some of which operate at pressures above 2,000 pounds per square inch — a hefty load for well casings over 60 years old.

We hike the hills and document the gas blowing sideways and downhill into town. Later that night, we see a plume of gas at least a mile long spanning Aliso Canyon. Of all the sites I’ve shot as a certified infrared thermographer nationwide, this is, hands down, the largest volume of spewing methane gas I’ve ever seen — and I’ve visited nearly a hundred sites around the country, including the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Each day, the leak is releasing the same amount of greenhouse gases as the average daily emissions of more than 7 million cars.

This video footage — aired nationally on NBC’s The Rachel Maddow’s Show and many other media outlets — has helped to draw widespread attention to the leak, and has assisted local residents in their efforts to get justice and to hold industry, regulators, and policymakers accountable.

Just ten days later, I return to Aliso Canyon to shoot additional infrared footage for the Environmental Defense Fund from a small chartered aircraft. We fly as close as is safe, seeing a plume nearly 1,000 feet high under calmer wind conditions. The pilot can’t help but note the pungent smell not long after gaining altitude.

We get a view of the well pad itself — a mangled looking mess coated in mud. This mud was used to try to “drown” the well during the first several attempts to plug the leak. Nothing worked. There are huge craters around the well, and no one wants to get too close with machines for fear of a spark turning the entire scene into an enormous fireball.

The footage I shot for EDF makes an even bigger mark on the national consciousness. Soon thereafter, California Governor Jerry Brown declares a state of emergency regarding the leak, and the Los Angeles Times editorializes against fossil fuels, referencing the Aliso Canyon leak.

Right now, as the leak enters its tenth week, the underground pressure has been reduced by half of its original rate, due to the gas escaping from the leak and other actions taken by SoCalGas — the company operating the facility — to withdraw gas in a controlled manner.

It will be months before the leak is repaired. SoCalGas is currently drilling two relief wells to divert the gas below the leak source, much like what was done during the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But by the time the wells are drilled, most of the gas will be gone anyway.

Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is 87 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. So far, an estimated 79,000 metric tons of methane have escaped from this one facility — so much that California’s goals to reduce climate pollution have been seriously compromised. It’s estimated that, at its height, the leak increased the state’s daily methane emissions by 25 percent.

What has this disaster taught us? For one thing, it’s yet another affirmation that fossil fuels are not safe or clean, and that things often go horribly wrong when it’s least expected. But more specifically, it highlights the woeful state of regulatory oversight on underground gas storage facilities such as Aliso Canyon. For example, the well casing at the site of the blowout failed hundreds of feet below the surface, likely due to the predictable corrosion of 60 year old well casings. To add insult to injury, the safety shut-off device for this well was removed long ago and never replaced.

So there you have it — a well operating at the upper limit of its pressure tolerance, with a safety valve deliberately removed long before, and a well casing that failed with no safeguards in place to prepare for when that time might come. Aliso Canyon has 114 other wells that could fail at any time unless adequate safeguards are in place.

Thankfully, Governor Brown’s declaration of a state of emergency will force a number of much-needed steps — both immediate and medium-term — that will address the situation. His declaration was much needed because, for example, the California Air Resources Board is considering new regulations that would address leak detection and repair for natural gas infrastructure, but these wouldn’t have applied to underground facilities like Aliso Canyon. Yes, you read that correctly. Now, due to Brown’s declaration, California regulatory bodies, including the Air Resources Board, will be required to assess the long-term viability of natural gas storage facilities in California.

It’s long past time to regulate these facilities properly, or take them offline entirely. Hundreds of underground natural gas storage facilities exist throughout the nation, and many of them could also experience catastrophic failures, in addition to other problems already occurring, such as groundwater contamination.

To prevent more disasters like Aliso Canyon in California and around the country (there are 326 similar facilities nationwide) we need an emergency statewide effort to shut down facilities that lack basic safety equipment, including Aliso Canyon. Gas storage wells that lack shut off valves should be taken offline before other Porter Ranches happen. We also need increased oversight and management of these facilities, not to mention support for residents affected by pollution, including health care and financial compensation.

Moving forward, we also need a rapid transition away from gas. The Solutions Project, an organization working to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, has mapped out a plan for California to achieve 100 percent fossil fuel-free energy by 2050. This transition would protect communities from underground storage risks, gas line leakage, and explosions like the one in San Bruno.

Because nearby communities — and the global climate — cannot afford any more disasters, Earthworks, a nonprofit that works to protect communities from the adverse impacts of energy development, is working hand-in-hand with community groups to push for significant regulatory changes and enforcement. Learn more about Earthworks’ work here.

 Pete Dronkers works at Earthworks.

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