SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, NOVEMBER 26 – If you gathered around the Thanksgiving table in California’s San Fernando Valley community of Porter Ranch, you may have had a few unwelcome guests: nausea, dizziness, headaches and nosebleeds.

And no, these things had nothing to do with the relatives.

That community is in the midst of an epic methane gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in the Santa Susana Mountains that has persisted for more than a month.

The leak began on October 23, and news reports indicate methane is leaking at a rate of 50,000 kilograms per hour. That’s equal to 25 percent of all methane emissions in California.

State officials have said the rate is not expected to be constant over time. According to state estimates made November 7 and 10, the plant then was emitting methane gas at rates of 44,000 +/- 5,000 kilograms per hour and 50,000 +/- 16,000 kilograms per hour, respectively.

The Environmental Defense Fund estimated on November 21 that the leak, as of that date, had emitted 2.6 to 2.9 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent gas – equal, in terms of CO2, to burning 292 million to 326 million gallons of gasoline.

KCET Radio in Los Angeles November 24 estimated that the amount of methane released by then was equal to burning nearly one billion pounds of coal.

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Why are people being sickened at Aliso Canyon? Because the leak is also emitting chemicals called mercaptons, additives that make the methane smell like sulfur.

Relief well one to three months off

Representatives from Southern California Gas Company, a division of Sempra Energy, told local officials November 24 that it could take months to stop the leak. The gas company has tried unsuccessfully to stop the leak by pumping fluid into the well, and it says it now plans to drill a relief well to capture gas before it’s released into the atmosphere. But that could take one to three months.

The leaking well extends a mile and a half underground, according to an ABC news report.

According to the ABC News story, the gas company has 115 wells at the Aliso Canyon site that pump natural gas (methane makes up about 80 percent of natural gas) into an empty underground oil field when demand is low, and extracts it when demand is up. The supply is “believed to be the largest natural gas storage facility in the West and is capable of supplying all of Southern California for more than one month,” the story says.

California’s chief regulator for oil and gas fields has issued an emergency order demanding that the gas company turn over all its test data and submit plans to seal up the leak.

Meanwhile, the leak has been declared a public nuisance by regional air quality authorities, and the gas company is expected to be charged fines daily as a result.

Residents offered relocation assistance

Local county health officials have also directed the gas company to pay for the temporary relocation of residents asking to be relocated.  As of November 24, 259 residents reportedly had requested relocation, and 67 had been placed in temporary housing.

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Local public health officials say that the health effects associated with the leak are temporary, but residents are skeptical.

Southern California Gas says it plans to mask the smell of rotten eggs associated with the leak by using a deodorizing mist called Odex – one news website said the gas company “basically wants to Febreeze the enormous methane leak” – at the site of the leak. More than 660 people in the area have complained of the stench, but several people are wary of adding more chemicals to the already fetid air. Odex is a biodegradable solution made from food-grade products.

“We’re not your guinea pigs,” Matt Pakucko, president of a group called Save Porter Ranch, said at a local government meeting, according to an ABC News report.

Fifth grader Cameron Michaels also had a few words for the gas company too. He told them, according to ABC news: “This make-it-up-as-you-go response is totally unacceptable.”

Methane is a potent, although short-lived, greenhouse gas that lasts in the atmosphere for about 12 years.

Nevertheless, its global warming impact on the atmosphere is 25 times that of CO2 over a 100-year time span, and 72 times that of CO2 over a 20-year time span (for equal amounts of weight), according to the California air quality report on the Aliso Canyon leak.

California, which has some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emissions regulations in the world, aims to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent from current levels by 2040.

The Aliso Canyon leak definitely won’t help with meeting that goal.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...