Two federal agencies are already working to address the problem of methane leaks—why we need to push harder for better regulations.
The governor of California declared a state of emergency on January 7 in response to what may be the biggest environmental disaster since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In October 2015, an underground natural gas well at the Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, California—about ten miles from Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and downtown Los Angeles—sprang a leak and began spewing methane into the air.
Lots and lots of methane. Since October, more than 79,000 metric tons of methane have been released into the atmosphere—the equivalent of adding more than 7 million cars onto the road.
Above: Aerial footage from December 17, 2015 of the massive natural gas leak at a storage facility in California’s Aliso Canyon. The giant methane plumes, which are naturally colorless, were made visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer. According to Timothy O'Connor, director of California oil and gas for the Environmental Defense Fund, “The plume is about 1,000-feet high and several miles long.” Courtesy of the Environmental Defense Fund.
It’s a disaster any way you look at it. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with a heat-trapping potential 20 times that of carbon dioxide. California has been a leader in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, but this leak unravels a lot of that progress, adding an estimated 25 percent in additional methane emissions each day to the pollution generated by the entire state.
The leak also puts the health of area citizens at risk. Methane is a contributor to ground-level ozone, which produces smog and can lead to asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments. High levels of ground-level ozone can also kill some plants.
More than 4,000 families have evacuated the Porter Ranch area after residents began complaining of headaches and nosebleeds following the initial incident in October. The company that owns the facility, SoCal Gas, believes it won’t be able to stop the leak until March, meaning local residents will be out of their homes and schools for more than four months.
The danger doesn’t stop there. Methane is flammable, and if the leak were to catch fire, the explosion could be devastating. The Federal Aviation Administration has forbidden planes from flying above the leak to prevent the fumes from catching fire, and crews working to fix the leak are prohibited from using cell phones and brass hammers, which might cause a spark.
This simply should not be happening. We can’t allow a seven-inch leak in a single well casing to disrupt the lives of thousands of people, threaten the safety of those in the region, and reverse an entire state’s progress on climate change. But this is the situation we find ourselves in without strong rules to prevent methane leakage—or that would force a quicker solution to this devastating problem.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to regulate methane pollution and recently sought public comments on some of its proposed regulations focused on reducing excess methane emissions from oil and gas production (known as “methane waste”). In December, NPCA asked the EPA to extend its proposed methane waste rules to cover existing facilities, not just new ones. This extension would help to prevent disasters like that at Porter Ranch. Unfortunately, it’s too late to prevent that damage. But it’s not too late to strengthen oversight to prevent future disasters.
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Methane leaks are not a problem limited to southern California. Around the country, there are some 500 storage wells like the Aliso Canyon facility—which hadn’t had a safety valve in place since 1979 and was not in fact required by law to have one—with a similar lack of safety oversight. What’s more, storage wells like Aliso Canyon are just one of the many sources of methane leakage. The natural gas industry is the single largest industrial emitter of methane, responsible for about 23 percent of all methane pollution in the United States.
Much of the leaking occurs near national parks. Oil and gas operations on New Mexico’s public lands leak more methane than any other state, including in the area near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Emissions have resulted in a huge methane “hotspot” looming over the Four Corners region, threatening air quality and human health. In some parts of the West where oil is more valuable than gas, as in North Dakota near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, methane is simply vented off into the air rather than captured. On the East Coast, methane leakage is also a growing problem, as energy development companies construct thousands of wells and associated infrastructure to tap into valuable Marcellus Shale near the national parks of the Delaware River and Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
We need to protect both ourselves and our parks. The EPA is still working on rules to reduce the amount of methane leaked from the natural gas industry. The problem is, those rules will only apply to new sources, not existing facilities like Aliso Canyon and countless other wells, pipelines, and storage tanks.
In addition, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is set to announce complementary rules to reduce methane leakage from facilities on BLM-leased lands. If these rules provide strong protections for both new and existing sources, they could go a long way toward preventing dangerous emissions near parks across the West.
NPCA and its members and supporters will continue to fight for stronger methane regulations with both agencies to protect people, national parks, and our climate from dangers like these.
The Aliso Canyon facility leak is a dangerous wake-up call. We can no longer afford to put our health, our parks, and our climate at risk by looking the other way on crumbling natural gas infrastructure.
About the author
Nicholas Lund Former Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program
Nick is a conservationist and nature writer. He is the author of several forthcoming books, including the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Maine (2022) and “The Ultimate Biography of Earth” (2022). His writing on birds and nature has appeared in Audubon magazine, Slate.com, The Washington Post, The Maine Sportsman, The Portland Phoenix and Down East magazine, among others.