WHILE THE WORLD was hammering out a historic agreement to curb carbon emissions—urged along by California, no less—the state was dealing with an embarrassing belch of its own. Methane, a greenhouse gas 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide, has been leaking out of a natural gas storage site in southern California for nearly two months, and a fix won’t arrive until spring.
The site is leaking up to 145,000 pounds per hour, according to the California Air Resources Board. In just the first month, that’s added up to 80,000 tons, or about a quarter of the state’s ordinary methane emissions over the same period. The Federal Aviation Administration recently banned low-flying planes from flying over the site, since engines plus combustible gas equals kaboom.
Steve Bohlen, who until recently was state oil and gas supervisor, can’t remember the last time California had to deal with a gas leak this big. “I asked this question of our staff of 30 years,” says Bohlen. “This is unique in the last three or four decades. This is an unusual event, period.”
Families living downwind of the site have also noticed the leak—boy, have they noticed. Methane itself is odorless, but the mercaptan added to natural gas gives it a characteristic sulfurous smell. Over 700 households have at least temporarily relocated, and one family has filed a lawsuit against the Southern California Gas Company alleging health problems from the gas. The gas levels are too low for long-term health effects, according to health officials, but the odor is hard to ignore.
Given both the local and global effects of the gas leak, why is it taking so long to stop? The answer has to do with the site at Aliso Canyon, an abandoned oil field. Yes, that’s right, natural gas is stored underground in old oil fields. It’s common practice in the US, but largely unique to this country. The idea goes that geological sites that were good at keeping in oil for millions of years would also be good at keeping in gas.
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