Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a dangerous greenhouse gas, accelerating global warming. Cost-effective, proven technologies are available to cap emissions from the oil and gas industry, but federal regulators have yet to take comprehensive action.
Environmental advocates surveying Aliso Canyon in Los Angeles’ picturesque San Fernando Valley last month saw an ordinary natural gas facility: several tons of industrial steel poking out of the ground toward a clear, blue sky.
But what could not be seen — at least to the naked eye — was a colorless cloud spewing from a leak in storage well No. 25.
The fissure at the Southern California Gas Company site, which began in late October, had been sending an estimated 100,000 pounds of methane into the air each hour.
“It’s pretty alarming when you see that much is just dumping into our air,” said Sharon Wilson of the nonprofit EarthWorks, which took aerial pictures of the leak at the SoCal Gas site. “There’s an awful lot of this stuff going into the air and these videos show it.”
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is an invisible climate change “accelerant” — warming the earth at 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide over two decades.
Thermal cameras have recorded the emissions at Aliso, but the climate damage done by the unprecedented leak will be harder to track — and may extend to the furthest reaches of the globe.
“It’s a big, big deal,” said Dr. Steve Conley, atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis. “Every month, it’s the weight of an aircraft carrier.”
Thousands of families who live in nearby Porter Ranch have been voluntarily relocated at the company’s expense. Nearly 2,000 children have been reassigned to schools outside the affected area after kids complained of a range of symptoms, from bloody noses to difficulty breathing.
Methane itself poses no long-term health risks, but a severe natural gas leak can cause short-term symptoms, including dizziness, fatigue, nausea, headache and irregular breathing. Officials believe the ailments community members are experiencing are from an odorant added to natural gas to make it detectable.
While Aliso Canyon is an extreme example, experts estimate there are thousands of methane leaks across the U.S., compounding the nation’s greenhouse gas inventory and foisting political pressure onto federal regulators to deal with the global warming contributor.
“Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not,” Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s California Oil & Gas Program Tim O’Connor said in a statement. “There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem — not just in California, but across the country.”
Tracking an invisible threat across the natural gas supply chain
Methane seepage can occur at all stages of oil and gas production — from leaks along the more than one million miles of domestic pipeline to intentional burn-offs of the gas at the hundreds of thousands of production sites dotted across the American landscape. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking during the extraction process can leak methane too. The Aliso Canyon leak sprung from a pipe leading to a storage facility buried 8,500 feet underground.
According to a 2014 Stanford University study, methane emissions may be 50 percent higher than official projections from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Research published last year also found the technology that EPA and others use to measure emissions may itself be flawed, and the amount of methane leaking into the atmosphere is likely “systematically underestimated.”
A study published in August, for example, found natural gas facilities lose about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas each year, about eight times the estimates used by EPA.
In towns across the country, methane’s invisibility makes it difficult for residents concerned about air pollution to hold industry accountable for its emissions.
Rebecca Roter, a homeowner in Pennsylvania, said she founded a local environmental group after seeing proof of infrastructure leaks in her community on a neighbor’s infrared camera.
“I’m haunted by this today because I can choose not to drink my water, but I can’t choose not to breathe,” she said. “If you’re getting royalties or not, if you’re living in a trailer or a big house. It’s all the same air.”
Technology’s bandaid for gas leaks
Natural gas has been touted on both sides of the political aisle as a “bridge fuel” for America — cleaner than coal and free from the contentious geopolitics of foreign oil. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said natural gas can “power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
But research from Cornell University suggests methane leaks may dramatically reduce, if not eliminate, natural gas’ oft-cited green advantage — especially as development increases:
“Using these new, best available data and a 20-year time period for comparing the warming potential of methane to carbon dioxide, the conclusion stands that both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger greenhouse gas footprint than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas and particularly for the primary uses of residential and commercial heating.”
The industry disagrees with this estimate, but unlike many issues exacerbating climate change that require complicated fixes or political buy-in from foreign actors, keeping methane from escaping into the atmosphere can be as simple as fixing a loose valve or upgrading out-of-date equipment, experts say.
Cost-effective, proven technologies are available to cap methane emissions, but federal regulators have yet to take comprehensive action on this dangerous pollutant. And while some natural gas companies have joined programs to monitor and reduce leakage, advocates from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) say there is little evidence of widespread use of green technologies.
“Failure to employ these health- and environment-protecting technologies is a classic market failure,” said Vignesh Gowrishankar, chief scientist for NRDC, speaking at a 2013 Senate subcommittee hearing on methane emissions. “Industry is leaving money on the table and the public is paying the price for suffering the health and environmental harms of leakage.”
For years, officials have been primarily focused on reducing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. On Aug. 3 of last year, President Obama announced an aggressive plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants across the country.
Two weeks later, EPA detailed the first federal regulations to address methane. The agency has said greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane are harmful to public health and welfare, and pose a serious threat to current and future generations. Methane contributes to the formation of smog and ground level ozone. Both are hazardous to human health.
“Through our cost-effective proposed standards, we are underscoring our commitment to reducing the pollution fueling climate change and protecting public health while supporting responsible energy development, transparency and accountability,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.
On Capitol Hill, the oil and gas industry has spent many millions in recent years to keep air pollution regulations — including those that might address methane — off the table at the federal and local levels, according to a PBS NewsHour review of lobbying records.
Industry lobbying against methane rules has increased as government officials began to consider the issue in earnest. In 2012, Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy, along with national trade group Independent Petroleum Association of America, were some of the few players lobbying specifically against methane rules. By 2014, that number rose to at least a dozen oil and gas companies, including Anadarko, BP America, Chevron and Hess.
Despite the political challenges, President Obama has pledged to cut methane emissions from oil and gas production by up to 40-45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025. While advocates have applauded the administration’s reduction goals, they point to gaps in the regulations proposed by EPA last summer. The agency has said the new rules are expected to reduce emissions by only 20 to 30 percent.
The announced regulations will apply chiefly to new equipment, although existing equipment is responsible for the majority of emissions.
“Reducing emissions from new oil and gas operations is an important first step. The largest source of this pollution, however, is the oil and gas infrastructure that already exists across the country, ” Meleah Geertsma, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. “Meaningful progress in combating this potent climate pollutant will require an industrywide cleanup — from infrastructure new and old.”
President and chief executive officer for America’s Natural Gas Alliance Marty Durbin countered that new regulations are “unnecessary and counterproductive,” because the industry is already reducing emissions.
“Not only do we have an incentive to capture methane — it is the product we sell — but our track record of efficiency improvement and innovation is what drives the environmental, economic and energy security benefits of natural gas,” he wrote in a press release for the organization in August. “A collaborative approach will bring greater reductions more quickly than new and unnecessary regulation.”
The American Petroleum Institute agrees, citing record lows in carbon emissions.
“Competitive forces and industry innovation are driving technological advances and producing clean-burning natural gas that has led carbon emissions to near 20-year lows,” said American Petroleum Institute spokesperson Sabrina Fang. Fang cites a recent EPA study that found methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas wells have fallen 73 percent since 2011. The report also notes an 11 percent reduction in total methane emissions from natural gas production since 2005.
These industry improvements came in part as a response to standards set in 2012 by the EPA for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — a class of carbon-based air pollutants. The White House says even though these regulations targeted VOCs, they also reduced methane emissions substantially. This trend suggests that regulations and innovation adoption can work.
What’s next for Porter Ranch?
But negotiations on The Hill matter little to residents near the Aliso Canyon site who have seen their lives disrupted by the largest recorded leak of natural gas in California’s history.
Matt Pakucko president and co-founder of Save Porter Ranch, an advocacy group that has long opposed the SoCal Gas facility, said he and his girlfriend have left their home at the company’s expense, but he’s not sure when or if they will return.
“That’s part of the problem, you see beautiful Porter Ranch and that’s all you see,” Pakucko said of the invisible leak. “They’ll maybe stop this or maybe they’ll make it worse … But when is it actually safe to move back in?”
SoCal Gas chief executive Dennis Arriola said in a statement the company “recognizes the impact this incident is having on the environment.”
“I want to assure the public that we intend to mitigate environmental impacts from the actual natural gas released from the leak and will work with state officials to develop a framework that will help us achieve this goal,” he said.
Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council president Paula Cracium said families are relocating mostly out of fear. “You do not want to be the parent that said, ‘Ah, it’s nothing,’ and then five years later, your child comes down with cancer,” she said.
“Property values have been enormously impacted. Small businesses have been impacted, and the question is whether or not they’ll even survive. We’re hopeful this leak gets fixed in the next month and a half. But we’re not confident.”
Michael D. Regan, Scilla Alecci and Asthaa Chaturvedi contributed reporting.