One of Biggest Environmental Disasters in U.S. History Is Happening Right Now in California

December 31st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

It's being compared to the disastrous British Petroleum oil spill — only invisible, and happening right now.

Disturbing levels of methane gas are currently spewing into the air from a Southern California Gas Company facility in Aliso Canyon, California, near Los Angeles. The foul-smelling gas, which has led to 1,700 evacuations and school relocations so far, is leaking out at a rate of 110,000 pounds per hour, state officials confirmed to the Washington Post on Christmas eve. At that time, more than 150 million pounds of methane had leaked into the atmosphere.

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Aerial footage filmed in infrared earlier in December by the nonprofit organization, Environmental Defense Fund, showed negative images of black plumes — invisible to the naked eye — billowing into the sky from the hillside facility nested above Burbank.

Methane gas, a main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas, more harmful than carbon dioxide, which is found in automobile emissions. The EDF estimates that methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other estimates are more conservative, pegging it at 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide pound for pound. It can also pose less abstract dangers as an explosive gas.

The footage, taken on December 17, captured a spew of methane stemming from a leak at a facility well deep in the ground that started over two months ago. Some are already calling it one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history. 

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"It is one of the biggest leaks we've ever seen reported," Tim O'Conor, California climate director for the EDF, told the Washington Post. "It is coming out with force, in incredible volumes. And it is absolutely uncontained."

A spokesperson for the Southern California Gas Company told Motherboard that the company has tried to stymie the flow of gas by "pumping fluids directly down the well," though they have yet to find success with the method. "[T]he relief well process is on schedule to be completed by late February or late March," the spokesperson said, referring to an effort to construct another well that would redistribute pressure from the leaking well in hopes to more easily plug the leak.

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The source of the leak is as yet unknown, but according to the EDF, more than 38 percent of the energy company's pipes are older than 50 years, with 16 percent composed of materials susceptible to corrosion and leaks.