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Methane Leak in California a 'Major Catastrophe' — Could Take 4 Months to Stop

Environmentalists estimate the effect is comparable to the tailpipes of up to seven million cars venting directly into the atmosphere every day.


Screen capture from YouTube video.

By Kim Brunhuber
About 42 kilometres from Los Angeles, above the houses nestled in the mountains of Porter Ranch, Calif., a plume of methane is shooting into the sky. The cloud is invisible but it stretches for kilometres, as though a forest fire has been continually burning for months. All of this is emanating from a tiny pipe about 20 centimetres wide, more than a kilometre underground.

"The amount of methane and natural gas that's coming out of the Aliso Canyon Facility really is probably one of the largest volumes of gas ever recorded from a single leak," says Tim O'Connor, an oil and gas specialist with the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, owned by SoCalGas, is the fifth biggest of its kind in U.S. But in late October, the company realized one of its wells was leaking. At first the company tried to close the leak using the conventional method of pouring fluids and mud down the well.

"We have tried that seven times and have been unsuccessful in trying to stop the leak," said SoCalGas spokesman Michael Mizrahi. "I have to say more than likely it's [because] the pressures that are coming up from the leaking well are so intense."

The company says it doesn't know exactly how much gas is escaping. But environmentalists estimate the effect is comparable to the tailpipes of up to seven million cars venting directly into the atmosphere every day.

"Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas; over the first 20 years it's released, it has a climate impact 84 times that of carbon dioxide," said O'Connor. "There's no telling what the far reaches of the overall end results are going to be. Air quality, public health, ecological — it's all on the table." The Federal Aviation Administration has imposed a no-fly zone because of the small risk that a plane could ignite a pocket of methane.

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