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Porter Ranch gas leak has global consequences

February 20, 2016

In 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown took the lead on climate change. Not only did he attend the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Europe, but back home he outlined steps to combat the problem, such as the goal of reducing emissions of methane and other short-term pollutants 40% by 2030. Now he—as well as the state of California and indeed the world—is being undermined by a natural gas leak near Porter Ranch, in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles. The leak, the result of a failed well at the Southern California Gas Co., has been ongoing for over three months, and a report issued by a UC Davis scientist on Nov. 20th registered 50 parts per million of methane in the atmosphere, an overall boost of 25%.

Here’s what it means to the state and the environment

It’s no surprise

According to MIT energy-studies assistant professor Jessika Trancik, the Porter Ranch incident does not come as a shock. An expert on the environmental effects of natural-gas emissions, she attributed the leak to a widespread failure of natural-gas infrastructure. More monitoring and better indicators of which well sites are at risk, she says, will help prevent future incidents.

The solution

The leak can’t continue forever. Indeed, it has tapered off dramatically from its high of 58,000 kg of methane per hour on Nov. 28th, to 18,400 kg per hour on Jan. 21st. Experts are now working to seal off the damaged well, a project they say will be completed by the end of February.

The fallout

Even this single occurrence can exacerbate climate change. At the height of the leak, the well surpassed methane gas emissions by all other industrial activity in the state. Because methane is a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, the massive and sustained release of it into the atmosphere will have environmental consequences long after the emissions stop.

For its part, Southern California Gas Co. says it will make up for the damage it has done to the climate in such a short time. And Gov. Brown does intend to hold the gas company’s feet to the fire by ordering them to fund various environmental projects that aim to curb climate pollutants. However, methane emissions are not covered in California’s environmental laws, so the culprits might get away scot-free while planet earth gets stuck with the bill.