SoCal gas leak: The climate disaster that’s hard to see

Aliso Canyon rig

SoCal gas leak: The climate disaster that’s hard to see

By Andrew Beahrs

The Aliso Canyon natural gas leak near the Los Angeles community of Porter Ranch in Los Angeles is frankly stunning: a methane plume 1,000 feet high, and several miles long, venting 90,000 tons of gas—up to 58,000 kilograms an hour. Since October, it’s emitted the greenhouse gas equivalent of 440,000 cars operating for an entire year, and clearly ranks among the great climate disasters of the past decade.

But perhaps the most startling thing about the Aliso Canyon leak is how long it took to break into the public consciousness.

When media coverage began, about five days after the leak’s October 23 discovery, it was largely limited to local sites like mynewsla.com noting resident’s concerns about fumes and citing the gas company’s statement that sealing the leak could take “days or longer” (in retrospect, a wildly optimistic if not mendacious judgment).  A week later, the Los Angeles Daily News added a more in-depth looks at repair attempts, in which it allowed Southern California Gas spokesman Javier Mendoza to describe the leak as “seepage” without offering a contrasting voice. It wasn’t until late November that outlets like the LA Times and Fox News began coverage in earnest, with the former noting that the leak represented up to a quarter of California’s emissions of the “potent greenhouse gas” methane. By that time, hundreds of families were being displaced, with many complaining of headaches and nausea.

Interest in story slow to develop

Meanwhile, a look at Google Trends suggests that interest in independently seeking out information for the disaster did not begin in earnest until mid-December, a full six weeks after the leak was first discovered.  Unless you live locally, or have some connection to one of the hundreds of people forced to abandon their homes, you almost certainly didn’t hear about it until it had gone on the better part of two months.

Of course, climate activists might not surprised at the delay. The challenge of explaining one’s urgency over the need to reduce greenhouse gases is made much more difficult by the fundamental qualities of gas: colorless, often odorless, usually invisible without an infrared lens.

Compare the response to the Aliso Canyon leak to that of another iconic Southern California fossil fuel disaster: the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969.  For ten days, oil from an offshore rig fouled the beaches of Santa Barbara and the shores of the Channel Islands.  Thousands of seabirds were killed.  The cleanup took months.

And people noticed.  The Santa Barbara spill is remembered today for the damage it did, but even more so for the passionate response it prompted.  It did more than prompt the institution of coastal protections; it’s sometimes credited with inspiring the birth of the modern environmental movement.

More leaks inevitable

It would be a relief, in some ways, if the Aliso Canyon leak was like that—if we could join an active cleanup, pulling on boots and rubber gloves and getting to work.  But of course there won’t be any crews scrubbing the air or mopping the horizon.  Until the leak is sealed, there’ll just be a steady, constant river of gas into the atmosphere—gas with a global warming capacity of 25x that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

What we can — and must — do is change the economic equation to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels; as long as we rely on oil and gas, oil will spill and gas will leak.  While it’s easy to blame the dramatic Aliso Canyon leak on the negligence of one company — Southern California Gas knew about the risk of leaks at the storage facility nearly a year before the leak was discovered, and 15 more of the company’s wells show “internal and external casing corrosion or mechanical damage”—our heavy use of gas makes smaller but constant leaks inevitable. That’s especially true given our reliance on aging energy infrastructure (nearly a quarter of SoCal Gas’s 229 wells are more than 70 years old).

The only long-term solution remains a broad transition off of carbon-based fuels, driven by a fair and accurate price that includes consideration of long-term climate damage.  When it comes to natural gas leaks, working towards a national carbon fee is the closest thing there is to picking up a mop.

Andrew Beahrs is a member of the CCL Blog Team and the Strategic Partnerships Coordinator for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Director for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.