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Porter Ranch methane leak doesn't bode well for climate

by Hilary Lewis Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015 at 4:53 AM
hlewis@earthworksaction.org 202-887-1872

Porter Ranch methane leak poses serious risk for climate. New infrared footage exposes the extent of the leak.


video: MPEG at 35.8 mebibytes

Have you ever seen methane? What about benzene? Or the chemical the gas company adds to make your stovetop gas stink, mercaptan? I asked residents at a Save Porter Ranch meeting in northwest Los Angeles if they had seen the pollution they knew was in their community, pouring down from the SoCal Gas storage facility on the hill behind town.

No one responded.

For months now, methane pollution has been billowing from the breached facility into their community. Families have reported bad odors resulting in headaches and nosebleeds. Over 1,000 families have already chosen to relocate and the school district recently authorized the two local schools to move out of the area. But no one had actually seen the pollution.

When an oil spill happens, you see it. At a coal fired power plant, you can often see the pollution blowing in the wind. But when a natural gas storage facility pollutes, what do you see?

Until now, you saw nothing. That’s because much oil and gas air pollution is normally invisible.

My colleague Pete Dronkers and I traveled to the community of Porter Ranch to show them the pollution they knew was there, but couldn’t see.

For Porter Ranch this was a critical step in gaining recognition for the problem. In Earthworks’ experience, showing someone pollution that is otherwise invisible makes it real, and helps catalyze much needed action. For many of the communities we serve, the polluter won’t admit there is pollution at all, so our videos are concrete evidence that something is wrong.

Earthworks uses a FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) Gasfinder 320 camera that is specially calibrated to expose otherwise invisible air pollution from oil and gas operations. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is one of about 20 gases it can detect. It also recognizes known carcinogens like benzene and other toxins like volatile organic compounds.

The camera is the same model that industry and government regulators use to detect leaks and other pollution associated with oil and gas. And Pete went through the three day training that FLIR recommends and state regulators also use to get certified to operate it. That, plus the $100,000 price tag, have kept this eye-opening technology out of the hands of the communities that need it most, until now.

What I saw in Porter Ranch was shocking. The black plume picked-up by the camera went on-and-on. But, unfortunately, I have seen it many times before.

Earthworks has filmed over 150 oil and gas facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and other parts of California. While the camera shows the presence of the group of pollutants it detects, we can be relatively certain in this situation that the pollution is mostly methane because it was leaking from a natural gas storage field. 

In Porter Ranch, and across the country, air testing is used to figure out exactly what type and how much pollution is in the air. Tests are ongoing in Porter Ranch, and have already found elevated levels of benzene. But no matter the facility, in our experience, almost everything is leaking something.

This pollution must be stopped:

  • Methane is 86 times worse for climate change than carbon dioxide over a 20 year period. This one leaking facility in Porter Ranch accounts for an estimated 25% of California’s daily methane emissions. Imagine if other storage facilities like this one (and there are many across the U.S.) burst, the climate impact would be catastrophic.
  • Natural gas and natural gas drilling operations (mostly hydraulic fracturing a.k.a fracking) often bring up ‘hitchhikers’ like benzene with the natural gas that drillers seek. These pollutants can be harmful to human health and have led to documented health impacts for people living near compressor stations, pipelines, fracking facilities, etc.

Making visible the normally invisible pollution from oil and gas development is a critical step in generating the political will to take meaningful action on potent climate and health pollutants. The new climate agreement signed in Paris will fall short if we do not address all sources of oil and gas methane pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a rule that would help us meet our climate commitments by cutting oil and gas methane pollution. But EPA’s proposal doesn’t cover existing facilities, or storage fields like the one near Porter Ranch. Hopefully we will learn from SoCal Gas’ disastrous Porter Ranch experience. Without strong standards that require cutting oil and gas methane pollution from all sources, our climate and our communities will remain at risk.

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