Massive Methane Leak in California Forces Residents to Flee Homes, Schools

Massive Methane Leak in California Forces Residents to Flee Homes, Schools 1

20th January 2016

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

Classified as one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters since the Deepwater Horizon 2010 BP oil spill, a leaking natural gas well above Los Angeles, California, has emitted more than 150 pounds of methane into the environment since October 2015, displacing thousands of residents in the community. Two schools have already closed and roughly 2,200 families have been relocated, with another 7,000 on the waiting list. Experts believe the leak won’t be stopped until late February or possibly into March.

Many residents are experiencing negative health effects such as regular headaches and nosebleeds. An asphyxiant, methane exposure can also cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness and loss of coordination. With serious cases, people can blackout and die.

The exact cause of the leak is unknown, but Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas) suspects a 7-inch well casing ruptured 500 feet below the surface. Not surprisingly, maintenance of the facility has come under scrutiny…

The Los Angeles Times reported in early January 2016 that a safety valve for the gas well was removed in 1979 and never replaced. While the valve may not have prevented the leak, it would have stopped the massive release of natural gas into the environment. When asked about the missing deep subsurface safety valve, SoCal Gas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey said it wasn’t required by law.

The company also issued a statement stating, “SoCal Gas is working as quickly and safely as possible to stop the natural gas leak at its Aliso Canyon Storage Facility, and we are redoubling our efforts to aggressively address its impact on the community and the environment.”

Methane: the ‘Other’ Greenhouse Gas

Methane is a “powerful short-term climate forcer, with over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it is released.” ~ Environmental Defense Fund

Spewing 110,000 pounds of gas each hour for over two months, the leak has amounted to 62 million cubic feet of highly reactive methane per day. Says the Environmental Defense Fund, “that’s the same short-term greenhouse gas impact as the emissions from 7 million cars.” Or a quarter of daily emissions for the entire state of California this year, according to California’s air quality regulators.

Methane traps more than 20 times the heat as carbon dioxide, classifying it as one of the most powerful greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming. The equivalent pollution from the gas leak can be seen in the following chart by the Environmental Defense Fund:

Environmental Defense Fund Methane Leak

(Image Source)

Erin Brockovich, known best for her role that helped win the biggest class action lawsuit in American history, has this to say about the natural gas leak:

“You know, BP was something that they couldn’t stop, that was way deep in the Earth, which is exactly what’s happening out here. And as we begin to peel back the layers of the onion, if you will, and find out what happened and why we’re in this type of situation, the idea that they have safety valves in place at 8,000 feet down, that Southern Cal Gas removed and never replaced, which would have prevented this type of catastrophic disaster, is mind-blowing. And so, you’re talking billions of cubic feet of gas under there, and all of this methane, day in and day out, is just billowing out of this site, that’s infecting a very large landmass, is an ongoing, constant assault to the community and a huge square mileage. We’re working with experts now to take all of the information so we can actually see an air plume and the magnitude of how far this has gone.” (source)

With such environmental devastation, a likely question would be what measures SoCal Gas is taking to stop the leak as quickly as possible?

Plugging the Well

The day after discovering the leak, SoCal Gas attempted to plug the well by injecting it with brine and mud — a compound of water, potassium chloride and bentonite clay. However, when the mixture reached about 470 feet down, the injections were blocked by an ice plug. The crew then injected antifreeze in the hope it would dissolve the plug — which it did. With the ice now gone, injections of brine and mud began again, but the strength of the escaping gas prevented the fluid from flowing downward. Because of this, SoCal Gas decided to drill a relief well at 5,000 feet where it will intersect with the capstone. The company will then temporarily plug the leak with the mud compound, before permanently sealing it with cement.

Massive Methane Leak in California Forces Residents to Flee Homes, Schools

The drilling will take months to complete. In the meantime, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

Adding to the frustration, the same well showed signs of leakage 24 years ago. Inspectors in 1992 documented that they heard the leak through borehole microphones. Gene Nelson, a professor of physical science at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California, said it was “appalling that SoCal Gas did not identify this as a well to shut off,” after receiving the report from the inspectors. Moreover, inspectors found further issues at the facility in 2014 — corrosion and negative integrity trends. And then there was the $898,000 yearly grant SoCal Gas received in 2013 for upgrades on equipment, like safety valves. The Environmental Defense Fund believes these extra funds were not used as intended, namely to prevent a major gas leak like the one currently out of control.

“We need to take a hard look at whether we can prevent these types of leaks,” Tim O’Connor, Director of California oil and gas for the Environmental Defense Fund, noting that smaller methane leaks at oil and gas facilities happen frequently. “These problems fly below the radar until catastrophes happen — and a catastrophe has just happened.” (source)

Aerial Footage of Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Leak

Article sources:

Previous articles by Carolanne Wright:

About the author:

Carolanne Wright

I’m Carolanne — a writer, chef, traveler and enthusiastic advocate for sustainability, organics and joyful living. It’s good to have you here. If you would like to learn more, connect with me at or visit


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