The Aliso Canyon Gas Leak

From ToxicLeaks

Fossil fuel champions often say that fossil fuels can be clean, especially natural gas. Well the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak is the proof that they are lying, and that all fossil fuels are dangerous and should be left in the ground where they belong.This natural disaster started in one of the biggest gas storage facilities in the country, owned by Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas). The gas leak started on October 23rd 2015 in a well located around Porter Ranch, close to Los Angeles and it rapidly released an enormous amount of methane and other petroleum gases, which makes it the worst natural leak in the American history and a disaster with an even worse carbon footprint than the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010.

An old well turned into an unsafe storage facility[edit | edit source]

Aliso Canyon was an oil and gas well for several decades and when the area's reserves were depleted, in the 1970's, it was changed into a gas storage facility. However, the site already had known industrial accidents, like in 1968, when an attempted removal of gas-lift valves caused a blowout and a fire that fortunately only destroyed infrastructure but did not harm anybody. This history should have driven the operators of this facility to caution. It didn't. Indeed in 1979, the safety valve that separated the natural reservoir from the well was old and leaking, but instead of replacing it, it was just removed. What's worse, SoCalGas, who was in charge of the well, said at the time that they had replaced the valve when they really had not. And that's how by cutting corners, fossil fuel corporations put people and the environment at risk, again and again.

A criminal lack of transparency when the leak started[edit | edit source]

The leak started because the casing of the well was breached and gas started to escape from the pipe into the atmosphere. This is where SoCalGas’ carelessness is highlighted. Had the 1979 safety valve been replaced and not merely removed, it would have been possible to close is and cut off the gas reservoir from the breached well. Instead, the gas kept leaking and leaking into the Porter Ranch air. Even worse, SoCalGas refused to acknowledge the danger of the leak for days after it had happened, which led many residents of Porter Ranch to be even more exposed to toxic gases than they would have if they been properly informed. The testimony of David Balen, a Porter Ranch resident that is committed to the life of the community, is appalling : “Going back to October 23rd, the afternoon, we were—the community was overtaken by noxious gases. The neighbors were reporting—they thought there might be a home that had a major leak. We did have the gas company come out. They were completely denying that there was ever a gas leak. They went from home to home to home, giving everybody the A-OK. And, you know, the gas company didn’t admit to having a gas leak until the following Wednesday—that would put it probably about around the 28th of October.”

The worse gas leak in the American history[edit | edit source]

The Aliso Canyon gas leak is clearly the worst gas leak in the history of the country, and it is considered even worse than the Deepwater Horizon Spill of 2010. At the beginning of the leak, 1,200 tons of methane gas were being released every day. That's enough gas to fill the Empire State Building, every day. Dave Clergern, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board points out that : “You can figure that a million metric tons — which is about the estimated monthly amount — is the equivalent of putting about 200,000 more cars on the road for a year.” This gives us a clear picture of the large scale environmental catastrophe that unfolded in California. The craziest thing is that the full extent of the disaster might not have been understood without the help of Steve Conley, a scientist pilot, that used a very special plane to fly over the well and measure the levels of gas in the atmosphere. His first impressions while measuring the gas levels are striking : “At first I thought my instruments were broken”. This is indeed an unmitigated disaster and its consequences on people's health and on the environment are going to be dramatic.

Porter Ranch residents pay the toll for SoCalGas’ carelessness[edit | edit source]

As always, ordinary citizens are the ones to suffer from corporate greed recklessness. The residents of Porter Ranch have been severely hit by numerous health issues as soon as the gas leak started. These issues include headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, ear, eye and throat infections. The long term effects of exposure to methane are not known but it could lead to severe health hazards for these people. These people needed to be relocated but SoCalGas was yet again not up to the task. By the end of Decembre 2015, two months into the gas leak, only 2,200 families had been moved to safe homes, when more than 6,500 families had asked SoCalGas to help them relocate. For those who were still left behind at Christmas time, it was like being under siege. The families were forced to celebrate the holidays holed up in their houses, unable to go outside at all. Ariana, a 8 year old child from one of those families summed it up pretty well : “SoCalGas ruined Christmas like the Grinch”. This is clearly unacceptable. SoCalGas is fully responsible for this leak that would not have happened if they had been cautious and have taken all the safety measures necessary. These families should not be the ones who pay for their mistakes.

A greenhouse gas nightmare[edit | edit source]

The leak is also a nightmarish calamity for the environment. Methane is incredibly bad for global warming. When comparing methane to carbon dioxide, Robert Howarth, professor at Cornell University, explains that “ methane is more than 100-times more powerful for the first decade after emission, 86-times over a 20-year period, and 34-times over 100 years”. Jerry Brown, California's governor, acknowledged this and decided to declare the state of emergency on December 15th. He said about the gas leak that "It is California that is at this point the single largest source point of global warming". According to Jeff Peischl, a scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “The current methane emission rate estimates released by the California Air Resources Board are approximately equal to the methane emissions from the entire Los Angeles urban area, and one quarter of the methane emissions from the entire state of California.” This will jeopardize California's pledge to cut emissions by 80 % by 2050 from their 1990 levels. The excess greenhouse gas pollution caused by the leak will mean even more efforts to reach that target.

An unprepared SoCalGas that was unable to stop the leak before months had gone by[edit | edit source]

What makes this such a big debacle is that SoCalGas was clearly not ready to face such a problem. It wasn't ready to help the people its careless decisions put at risk, as we've seen, and it wasn't ready to fix the problem quickly and effectively. Several attempts to plug the well by injecting fluids into the pipe failed in November because the pressure from the gas leak was too strong for this solution to work. This clearly points to SoCalGas' improvisation as to how it could fix this problem. The second idea was better. They decided to drill a secondary relief well that managed to vent the gas safely and lower the pressure inside the leaking well so that it could be sealed permanently. This was achieved on February 18th, when State officials officially announced that the well was capped and that the leak was over. Let us hope that they are right and that this isn't another time bomb waiting to go off again and endanger the people of Porter Ranch all over again. Even if this solution manages to solve this issue permanently it doesn't erase the hard reality that it took four months to find a way out of this disaster and this is a clear sign that SoCalGas wasn't prepared to face such a scenario. Sooner or later, the careless attitude of fossil fuel corporations is evidenced by the poor choices they make, in their neverending quest for easy profit.

Growing concerns about other wells[edit | edit source]

While this particular leak seems to have been fixed, Aliso Canyon has many other wells, and the people of Porter Ranch worry that what happened once may happen again. When you think of the way the safety of the well wasn't maintained in the last decades, it's hard not to agree with them. These concerns echo a report made in 2014 about the safety of California's wells. This report states that the hazards concerning these wells were “further amplified by the age, length and location of wells.” The report also highlights that “some SoCalGas wells are more than 80 years old with an average age of 52 years.” Consequently, the number of wells in need of repairs is growing. “Without a robust program to inspect underground storage wells to identify potential safety and/or integrity issues, problems may remain undetected”, according to the report. This can be directly linked to political weakness towards fossil fuel operators. The Center for Biological Diversity has voiced strong disapproval of Governor Brown’s management of the crisis : "state regulators’ hands-off approach to underground injection helped set the stage for this catastrophe." The Center also claimed that "the state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen, but officials mostly ignored those risks." Indeed, that state government let this calamity happen is a clear sign that it is not serious in its drive to improve California's environment and carbon footprint. It's time for California’s politicians to take hard decisions to enact their environment friendly statements.

All in all, the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak is the proof that our dependency to fossil fuels is dangerous and that it has to stop right away. We have to invest in a true energetic transition that will emancipate us from these obsolete energy sources that are a threat to our environment and to our health.