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The giant methane plumes were made visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer. (Screenshot)

Enormity of Billowing Methane Plume in California 'Cannot Be Overstated'

Porter Ranch leak, spewing methane since October, shows 'gaping vulnerabilities' in oversight

Deirdre Fulton

The toxic methane cloud that has been "billowing" for months over an underground natural gas reservoir near the affluent community of Porter Ranch just north of Los Angeles illustrates "gaping vulnerabilities" in oversight and enforcement of greenhouse gas pollution rules, a California newspaper editorial board declared this week.

A pipe leak has been releasing an estimated tens of thousands of kilograms of methane into the air every hour since mid-October, leading environmentalists like Erin Brockovich to declare it "a catastrophe the scale of which has not been seen since the 2010 BP oil spill."

"The enormity of the Aliso Canyon gas leak cannot be overstated," Brockovich wrote earlier this month after visiting Porter Ranch. "Gas is escaping through a ruptured pipe more than 8,000 feet underground, and it shows no sign of stopping. As the pressure from weight on top of the pipe causes the gas to diffuse, it only continues to dissipate across a wider and wider area. According to tests conducted in November by the California Air Resources Board, the leak is spewing 50,000 kilograms of gas per hour—the equivalent to the strength of a volcanic eruption."

Aerial footage released last week by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) provided the first-ever bird's eye view of what the organization called "one of the nation’s largest-ever methane leaks."

Watch the footage below:

As Common Dreams has reported, methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that packs over 80 times the 20-year warming power of carbon dioxide. 

And that's why the Porter Ranch leak has implications beyond California. "Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not," said Tim O'Connor, director of EDF's California Oil & Gas Program, last week.

"There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem—not just in California, but across the country," he continued. "Regardless of what the future holds for the Aliso Canyon storage field, this is one reason why strong rules are needed to require that oil and gas companies closely monitor for and manage methane leaks."

The Sacramento Bee echoed that call in a strident editorial on Tuesday. "[T]he fact that a leak of this magnitude happened at all raises all sorts of regulatory questions, starting with why natural gas was even being stored near a planned community of 31,000 people," the editorial board wrote.

Despite warnings from environmental groups about methane's climate impacts and Southern California Gas Co.'s own concerns about the site's aging infrastructure, "state records show it has been more than a year since the pipe with the suspected leak was tested," the editorial continued. "The leak was found by a gas company employee, not state inspectors. And the California Air Resources Board only recently has begun to home in on methane and other short-lived climate pollutants in addition to carbon dioxide."

The Bee declared: "Clearly, more robust oversight is needed."

Southern California Gas Co. officials told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday that they had "pinpointed" the source of the leak. But they also said repairing the leak could still take until the end of March.

For more on the leak and its implications not only for local residents but for the global climate, watch Brockovitch and David Balen, president of the Renaissance Homeowners Association, located just outside the breached well site, on Wednesday's edition of Democracy Now!:


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