California declares state of emergency after methane gas leak forces thousands from their homes

It’s been called the United States’ “biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill” — and it has officially been declared a state of emergency by California Governor Jerry Brown.

California declares state of emergency after methane gas leak forces thousands from their homes
  • Natural gas, or methane, first started leaking from Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon storage facility on October 23 last year.
  • Some 2,300 homes have been evacuated in nearby Porter Ranch, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, after residents began experiencing nosebleeds, rashes, headaches and other serious health impacts due to the gas leak.
  • SoCalGas, as the company is known, estimates that it could take as long as four months to totally stop the leak.

An ongoing methane gas leak at a facility in Southern California — what’s been called “the nation’s biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill” — has officially been declared an emergency by Governor Jerry Brown.

Natural gas, or methane, first started leaking from Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon storage facility on October 23 last year.

Some 2,300 homes have been evacuated in nearby Porter Ranch, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, after residents began experiencing nosebleeds, rashes, headaches and other serious health impacts due to the gas leak and the sulfur-like smell that is blanketing their community.

It’s been estimated that the leak has so far emitted more than 150 million pounds (over 68,000 metric tons) of methane, a greenhouse gas that scientists believe to be as much as 35-times more potent than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t persist in the atmosphere as long as CO2.

According to a statement released by the Environmental Defense Fund, the leak was pouring 72 million cubic feet of methane into the atmosphere every day at its peak. Over the next 20 years, that will be equivalent to having 7 million more cars on the road.

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Overhead photo of the leaking Aliso Canyon well pad that is polluting Porter Ranch community in Los Angeles County. Photo by Earthworks / via Flickr.

“This leak has been a state of emergency for the Porter Ranch community and the climate since day one,” Mark Brownstein, vice president for climate and energy at the EDF, said in the statement. “Governor Brown is right to call it such and to shut down the facility until it is made safe.”

Brownstein added that leaks from the oil and gas industry occur on a daily basis, and that the crisis at Aliso Canyon, while an extreme example of what can happen when oil and gas companies don’t adequately monitor and maintain aging infrastructure, points to the need for far stronger state and national methane policies to prevent these types of problems in the future.

Recognizing the severity of the situation at Aliso Canyon earlier than the state, environmental activists have been calling for Governor Brown to use his powers to declare a state of emergency since at least early December, when the governor was attending the UN climate talks in Paris to tout his record on combating climate change.

While in Paris, Brown vowed to “dramatically lower” emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, including methane, calling it “probably the most immediate challenge, and the most important thing to do leaving this conference.”

“Short-lived climate pollutants are something we can tackle,” Brown said. But it would be another month before he took action on the Aliso Canyon leak.

SoCalGas, as the company that operates the Aliso Canyon facility is known, estimates that it could take as long as four months to totally stop the leak. The company began digging a relief well it expects to complete on March 15 after initial efforts to plug the leak failed.

If that timeframe is correct, the leak will have put 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air by the time it’s capped, according to Tim O’Connor, director of the EDF’s oil and gas program in California.

Governor Brown ordered a number of new inspection and safety measures, including a requirement that all operators of natural gas storage facilities conduct daily inspections of wellheads using infrared leak-detection technology, according to the LA Times. But it’s not clear what, if anything, the emergency declaration will do to stop the Aliso Canyon leak any quicker or to alleviate its immediate impacts on nearby communities.

While welcoming the first steps Governor Brown has now taken to address the situation, some critics of his administration said it verged on being too little, too late.

“This gas leak is one of the largest fossil-fuel disasters in California history, but the governor is only now getting personally involved,” Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “It’s time for a comprehensive reassessment of the huge risks posed by oil and gas storage and production.”

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