Slow-motion methane disaster

Aliso Canyon has leaked more greenhouse gases in two months than a coal mine does in a year.

 

In the hills above suburban Los Angeles, a man-made natural disaster of sorts has been unfolding for nearly two months. One can't see it or hear it, and it's not leaving a trail of dead animals and plants in its wake. It's potentially catastrophic, nonetheless.

On October 23, workers at the massive Aliso Canyon subterranean natural gas storage facility north of the L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch noticed that one of their old wells was leaking. When the usual fixes didn't take, the workers surmised that the leak must be originating far underground, near the natural gas reservoir, itself. And fixing that would be a long, drawn out challenge.

Two months has gone by, and the leak is still leaking. Big time.

Not long after the disaster began, residents of Porter Ranch were able to smell the rotten-egg odor of the mercaptons, which are added to natural gas in order to make it detectable. The additives caused some folks to suffer from burning eyes, nausea, headaches and other health issues, forcing dozens to leave their homes.

The long-term impacts might be even more serious. Natural gas is mostly made up of methane, which is about 87 times more potent in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. Because methane breaks down in the atmosphere over time, the potency drops to about 34 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100 year span (the EPA sticks with 25 times the warming potential over 100 years, an outdated figure).

And since it began, the leak has been emitting methane at a rate ranging from 36,000 to 58,000 kilograms per hour, according to the California Air Resources Board. That adds up to a total of some 62,000 metric tons of methane emitted as of Dec. 16  about four times what had been lost nationwide in natural gas transmission pipeline "incidents" all year. And the number keeps growing.

With just two months of emissions under its belt, the Aliso Canyon facility has already leaked enough methane to put it in the number two spot in the West for the entirety of 2014. Measurements for the San Juan Basin Geologic seeps only include the portion of the Basin in Colorado on non-Ute land.
Graph: Jonathan Thompson. Data: California Air Resources Board, EPA, LT Environmental.

Natural gas burns far more cleanly than coal, emitting about half the carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated, making it a climate-friendly replacement for coal. Leaks like this one, however, undermine the advantages of natural gas. Various studies show that when as little as 3 to 4 percent of the total natural gas produced is lost to leakage, it becomes worse for the climate than coal.

For some perspective, consider the emissions thus far from the leak:

  • 1,128: Metric tons of methane emitted from the Aliso Canyon leak per day.
  • 775: Number of households that amount of natural gas could heat for an entire year.
  • 62,000: Metric tons of methane emitted from leak as of Dec. 16, 2015.
  • 2.1 million: Metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (assuming a 100-year impact) emitted from leak as of Dec. 16, 2015.
  • 2.8 million: Metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, over the same period of time.

It could be months before a final fix is found for the Aliso Canyon leak. And as long as it keeps spewing, it will continue to raise questions as to how "clean" natural gas really is.

UPDATE: The graph was updated on 12/29/2015 to reflect new emissions data for the Aliso Canyon leak and to correct an error in the data for the San Juan Basin geological seeps.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. Homepage photograph of Aliso Canyon leak courtesy Environmental Defense Fund. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.