There is a crisis happening in California right now that could have global consequences. On October 23, an enormous methane leak erupted from a facility in Aliso Canyon, outside of Los Angeles. It has become an incredible problem and an obstacle that SoCalGas is unable to stop. The company has estimated that it will be at least 3 more months before they will be able to plug the leak, meaning that harmful methane gas will be spewing into the atmosphere until spring of 2016. The California methane leak has already become the single largest source of methane emissions in the entire state, practically overnight.
Already, thousands of residents in the area surrounding the leak have been displaced from their homes after suffering adverse reactions to the natural gas. Methane, the main component of natural gas is a colorless and odorless substance, and is non-toxic to the human body. However, producers of natural gas inject it with sulfuric chemicals to give it a smell similar to rotten eggs. This is to help detect small gas leaks by smell. The overwhelming amount of gas leaking into the air at this time has caused a stench so atrocious that residents are experiencing severe reactions, including migraine headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, and dizziness.
Aside from the impact on local residents, this leak has the potential to become a global disaster. The spread of this leak is being compared to the BP oil spill in 2010, where 4.9 billion barrels of oil leached into the ocean off the coast of Louisiana. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas that has far-reaching consequences. According to the EDF, methane gas has an impact on the environment that is 84 times the impact of carbon dioxide.
“Environmentalists estimate the effect is comparable to the tailpipes of up to seven million cars venting directly into the atmosphere every day.”
At this point the leak has sent over 73,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere at a rate of 110,000 pounds per hour, which is the equivalent of approximately 6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. And there’s no end in immediate sight. The company that owns the plant where the leak erupted, SoCalGas, attempted to plug the leak with traditional methods, which essentially involves pumping fluids directly into the well. According to Anne Silva, a representative from the company, workers have been “unable to establish a stable enough column of fluid to keep the force of gas [from] coming up from the reservoir.”
Now, in a second attempt to stop the leak, SoCalGas is digging a relief well. This well will intercept the leaking well at 8,500 feet and will again pump fluids into the leak to plug it. They will then fill the leaking well with cement to permanently seal it. The drilling began on this relief well on December 4, but they have only reached a depth of 4,800 feet, only about halfway to their destination. However, last week the company used magnetic ranging equipment to pinpoint the exact pipe that is leaking the gas. The company has estimated they will be completing the relief well and plugging the leak in March. By that time, who knows what the impact will be?
You can watch a real-time counter of how much methane has been leaked into the atmosphere on the EDF webpage here.