The real emergency at Porter Ranch? California’s risky dependence on fossil fuels

A massive leak at a natural gas storage facility near the Porter Ranch community in Los Angeles has emitted 150 million pounds, or 72,000 metric tons, of methane since October 23 according to infrared tracking reports from the Environmental Defense Fund. This accounts for roughly 25 percent of California’s emissions in 2015 and several reports are calling the methane leak the nation’s largest environmental disaster since the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Equipment and machinery is seen on a ridge above a natural gas well in Southern California Gas Company’s vast Aliso Canyon facility before it began leaking.

A methane leak of this scale appears to be without precedent, representatives of both an environmental group and the gas company told Lobet. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas; it traps 86 times more heat over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide does. Officials from Southern California Gas, which operates the well, have said the company expects to stop the leak in February to late March.

Methane – the main component of natural gas – is a very strong greenhouse gas, capable of trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere. The leaders ask that they be briefed in the next week on what is being done to mitigate the leak and its “potentially disastrous effects”, they said in a statement.

Residents have been complaining of nausea, headaches and other symptoms, but the utility company says that “scientists agree natural gas is not toxic and that its odorant is harmless at the minute levels at which it is added to natural gas”. Another seven attempts failed because the upwards pressure of the leaking gas was greater than the pressure that they could use to push the mud-chemical cocktail into the earth. An online information center at the SoCalGas website boasts “Safety is our number-one priority”, and maintains that while the smell is “unpleasant” the leak “does not pose an imminent threat to public safety”. That sounds nice, but experts still say the leak will take months to fix. Regulators will monitor Southern California Gas maximize its efforts to capture leaking gas and store it elsewhere.

This week, an “oily mist” was reported drifting from the storage facility over the Porter Ranch neighborhood. More than 2,000 people have been moved from their homes in a suburb of Los Angeles.