Around the time a state of emergency was being declared for the water crisis in Flint, Mich., the governor of California was declaring a state of emergency in Porter Ranch, a suburb of Los Angeles. The problem there is not the water, but a ruptured underground gas pipe that has been spewing an estimated 65,000 lb of natural gas per hour since October. The leak is actually a metal pipe in a breached 7-in. injection-well casing. The well, drilled some 8,750-ft deep in 1953, initially had been provided with a safety valve. In 1979, however, the 26-year-old valve apparently began leaking and was removed. According to the owner—Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas)—the well was not “critical” because it was not in close proximity to a park, home, or road.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which, besides being extremely flammable, can be very explosive when mixed with air. It is so flammable the Federal Aviation Administration has declared the airspace above Porter Ranch a no-fly zone. Also, it is capable of displacing oxygen in an enclosed space, causing asphyxia. Because of the hazards associated with methane, thousands of Porter Ranch residents, including California’s Secretary of State, have been displaced, and two schools have been closed.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming by depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere and contributes to the production of ground-level ozone. It is estimated the Porter Ranch leak has released more than 80,000 metric tons of methane, equivalent to approximately 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s comparable to the greenhouse-gas emissions from burning more than 2 billion lb of coal! Those of us involved in sustainability recognize the cleaner-burning advantages of natural gas as a fuel. In our industry, we are talking mainly about specifying, selling, installing, and servicing gas-fired boilers and hot-water heaters. However, some of the greener HVAC contractors also have natural-gas-fueled service trucks. An incident like this one can seriously reduce those advantages, and this is not the only leak in the country—it’s just the worst one. In fact, it is the largest natural-gas leak ever recorded and is being called a worse environmental disaster than BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
The leaking pipe connects to the Aliso Canyon underground storage facility, one of the largest natural-gas reservoirs in the United States. The age of the well is, of course, a major factor in the failure. Although it met all regulatory requirements 63 years ago, it likely would not comply today. Some experts believe stress on the well has increased with fracking in the area, a subject about which I’ve posted and that has been a hot topic in South Florida since an application for a permit to use fracking in the Everglades was filed. Our local weekly newspaper’s editorial, opposing the Everglades project, led with a condemnation of the “government incompetence” in Flint and compared Florida legislators to Michigan officials.
Last week, the California attorney general joined the city and county of Los Angeles when she filed a civil suit against SoCalGas. The county also filed criminal charges, and at least one wrongful-death suit has been filed. SoCalGas is alleged to have been slow in reporting the incident, and the state’s claim—which brings to 11 the number of local, state, and federal agencies now either investigating or suing the gas company—includes one of statewide harm caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.
There has been much discussion by the government and media about the aging infrastructure in our country over the last few years. Usually, the focus has been on bridges and water distribution. Now, it’s time to take a serious look at the more than 400 underground natural-gas-storage facilities holding approximately 3.6 trillion cu ft of gas and the pipelines that deliver that gas.