Giant Methane Leak is “Worst Disaster Since Gulf Oil Spill”

December 28, 2015

Now made visible.

Environmental Defense Fund:

Aerial footage filmed Dec. 17, 2015, shows potent, climate-damaging methane gases escaping from a massive natural gas leak at a storage facility in California’s Aliso Canyon, with the San Fernando valley pictured in the background. The giant methane plumes were made visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer.


An enormous amount of harmful methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, California, at a startling rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. The gas, which carries with it the stench of rotting eggs, has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. Many residents have already filed lawsuits against the company that owns the facility, the Southern California Gas Company.

Footage taken on December 17 shows a geyser of methane gas spewing from the Earth, visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released the footage last week, calling it “one of the biggest leaks we’ve ever seen reported” and “absolutely uncontained”.

In early December, the Southern California Gas Company said that plugging the leak, which sprang in mid-October, would take at least three more months. Right now, the single leak accounts for a quarter of the state’s entire methane emissions, and the leak has been called the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill in 2010.

“Our efforts to stop the flow of gas by pumping fluids directly down the well have not yet been successful, so we have shifted our focus to stopping the leak through a relief well,” Anne Silva, a spokesperson for the Southern California Gas Company, told Motherboard, adding that the company is still exploring other options to stop the leak. “The relief well process is on schedule to be completed by late February or late March.”

Part of the problem in stopping the leak lies in the base of the well, which sits 8,000 feet underground. Pumping fluids down into the will, usually the normal recourse, just isn’t working, said Silva. Workers have been ”unable to establish a stable enough column of fluid to keep the force of gas coming up from the reservoir.” The company is now constructing a relief well that will connect to the leaking well, and hopefully provide a way to reduce pressure so the leak can be plugged.

It’s worth noting that the type of gas involved in this leak is part of what makes it so sinister. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to climate change impact. About one-fourth of the anthropogenic global warming we’re experiencing today is due to methane emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Leaks like the current one in California, it turns out, are a major contributor. In Pasadena, for instance, just miles from the leak in Aliso, investigators found one leak for every four miles.


22 Responses to “Giant Methane Leak is “Worst Disaster Since Gulf Oil Spill””

  1. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    Methane absorbs infra red, so it looks black to an infra red camera.
    Setting fire to the plume would help reduce its global warming potential, and some of its energy could be harvested by using it to boil large amounts of water to transport to where it could be useful.
    Alternatively, one could use tethered balloons to collect the gas and tow away for extraction.
    Joined-up thinking isn’t that difficult!

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    I read somewhere that this leak adds GHG equivalent to the emissions from 7+ million cars. Since CA has only about 20 million cars on its roads, that’s a lot.

    Andy’s idea of setting fire to it is a good one, and it should have been done immediately,m but would be very bad PR—-as it is, if you don’t have your IR goggles on (and tuned to methane) and if the wind isn’t blowing in your direction, you wouldn’t even know it’s there. It looks like enough gas is coming out that the flame from flaring it would be visible for many miles.

    I have to laugh at they “haven’t been able to establish a stable enough column of fluid” to plug the well. Of course not—-they are trying to do it “on the cheap” with “fluids” and thereby preserve the profits from the facility. Filling the pipe with concrete would probably seal it within hours, but then they’d have to wait months to start making $$$ again while they drilled new access wells.

    This fiasco also makes one think of the big plans they have for CCS—-drill down and store the CO2 in the earth as they are doing with the NG here. Then wait for blowouts and huge releases of CO2 to show that it was a bad idea.

    (PS I like the balloon idea—-think of all the advertising space they could sell on the balloons—just like the Goodyear blimp).

    • andrewfez Says:

      I live about 8 or so miles south of that well. I see the realtor sharks out trying to rent alternate houses to these guys that are affected by the leak. Porter Ranch has 3 bed-2bath million dollar homes, thanks to the housing bubble, which are now rapidly becoming 1/2 million dollar homes, thanks to the gas company.

      Soon as the SHTF all those wealthy residents in the area grouped up and started holding meetings and networking with lawyers to strategize against the gas company. As a result, it feels as if the gas company is playing a little more nicely than they would if this had happened in the Appalachian region, in a middle class or poor neighborhood.

      Just down the road, about 5 to 8 miles, in the Simi Valley/Chatsworth Region, they had a series of nuclear reactor meltdowns decades ago, involving reactors that weren’t housed in concrete containment structures, which are said to have released a lot more material than 3 mile island. There are still lawsuits going on to this day concerning who is supposed to clean the area up.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Andrew, have you thought about leaving wild-fire prone, earthquake-ridden, drought-stricken, methane-leaking, nuclear waste-contaminated, snow-free, water-short, and crowded CA and moving back to WV? As long as you don’t get too near the chemical plants or the mountain top removal sites, it’s still “wild and wonderful”.

        (And that article about the Santa Susana Lab reads like a novel in places. Man’s technology sure got way ahead of his ability to understand or control it there).

        • andrewfez Says:

          Yeah, if I can find a job, I’ll be coming back sometime in 2016. WV still has the $7,500 tax credit for the Chevy Volt I think, and combining that with the federal $7,500 I may even be able to get a new car.

  3. rlmrdl Says:

    Setting fire to that much gas would certainly be spectacular, I’m guessing they are not enamoured of the potential for the first thing to happen being an enormous detonation propagating to 10,000 feet or so. It could be the equivalent of an fae and I suspect their insurance company is not wild about the effects such a shockwave might have on the local landscape.

    As for balloons, good luck with that; capturing 110,000 pounds an hour would mean god knows what volume that would need capturing and how many balloons it would fill and where you might keep them and what kind of explosion hazard such a pile of balloons might pose in their own right.

    And if they could control the gas well enough to pump it into balloons, they could control it well enough to turn off the tap. Joined up thinking ain’t quite as easy as some might think.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      One has to be “loose” in order to do really fruitful “joined up thinking”. At the same time, one has to stay “tight” enough to keep the science correct.

      An “enormous detonation propagating to 10,000 feet or so” isn’t possible, and no matter what they do with the gas, it won’t produce “the equivalent of an fae”, since FAE’s are made with way different “fuels” and it’s dispersed in a way much different than a gas plume dissipates.

      If this mess were torched, it would produce a big “whoosh” and a flame that shrunk rapidly back as the oxygen mixed with the gas and the flame front burned “inward”. Think Bunsen burner. Not much of a “shock wave” and there’s nothing much located close to the well anyway. The final “torch” that remained WOULD be a big one, though.

      I am reminded of two demonstrations often done in science classes to demonstrate the properties of hydrogen. One was using a soap solution and kid’s bubble pipe to blow floating hydrogen bubbles—-then igniting them with a candle stuck on the end of a meter stick—-nice little fireball and quiet “whoosh”. The other was to pipe some hydrogen into a waxed milk carton, close it, prop it on a ring stand, and light a bottom corner. Once the carton burned through and enough air got in for an explosive mixture to form, there WOULD be a small explosion (loud “pop”) and the carton would do a little cartwheel in the air.

      As for “….capturing 110,000 pounds an hour would mean god knows what volume that would need capturing and how many balloons it would fill and where you might keep them and what kind of explosion hazard such a pile of balloons might pose in their own right”

      Actually, the math is simple. The density of methane is ~.05 lb/ft3, so 20 ft3 would weigh about 1 lb, and 110,000 pounds would be about 2,200,000 ft3, and that’s close to the volume of 9 or 10 Goodyear blimps. They can row them in “trains” with helicopters, park them in the Mojave, and if their “skins” were not flammable, there would be little fire hazard and almost no explosion “hazard”. The Hindenburg did NOT explode.

      (And STYA Bear is right on target with his comment at 7:47, although an old English longbow will have much better range than a crossbow and therefore help the shooter escape more easily—-shades of Agincourt. OOH-rah archers!)

  4. It appears there will need to be considerably more joined up thinking to solve this one. It’s more of a disaster than the article shows it to be as it uses the ridiculous comparison of methane to carbon dioxide of 25 to 1. That was the IPCC number years ago and was used to show the relationship over a period of 100 years while methane’s perturbation lifetime in the atmosphere is only about a dozen years. So the strength of methane had to be prorated to get a figure like that. Current thinking is that methane is about 100 times the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide during its lifetime.

  5. SmarterThanYourAverageBear Says:

    Someone should anonymously shoot a flaming crossbow arrow into the plume.

    • Kiwiiano Says:

      You’re going to need something a bit longer range than a crossbow. A drone towing a lit propane torch perhaps, since they’re already the “menace du jour”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      “shoot a flaming crossbow arrow into the plume”
      ..and then, I guess, run like hell?

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Yep, since a crossbow’s range is limited, one might get scorched a bit if they hung around. That’s why I suggested using a longbow that can shoot from 3+ times the distance. Although running might help, I don’t think even Jesse Owens could get very much farther away during the arrow’s flight time.

        Since we’re doing “joined up thinking” here, one might instead bring a reflective fire blanket and wrap up and duck into a small slit trench after firing the arrow. Just as those soldiers did after nuclear weapons tests in Nevada in the 1950’s, one could then pop up and walk under the “roiling cloud”.

        Actually, except for the expense of losing the drone and propane torch, the drone idea is a good one. Just be sure to file off the serial numbers and do a fingerprint wipe so it can’t be traced back to you.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          PS Speaking of “joined up thinking”, I will again tout E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge”. Terrific stuff.

        • Lionel Smith Says:

          I believe there are such things as tracer and also incendiary bullets.

          Just saying.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            Indeed there are such things, and they are also fun to shoot, but a methane plume in CA is not the best place to use them (unless you are adept at ninja “invisibility” and infiltration and evasion techniques and can evade detection). To wit, CA gun law says:

            5) Unreasonably Dangerous Ammunition

            California also prohibits the possession, sale, offer for sale, or knowing transportation of a “destructive device,” defined to include “[a]ny projectile containing any explosive or incendiary material” or any other chemical substance including, but not limited to, that commonly known as tracer or incendiary ammunition, and any “explosive missile.”

            Oil and gas companies are allowed to break the law in order to make $$$$—-we aren’t allowed to break the law even when it’s the right thing to do.

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