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This Is What a Massive Methane Leak Looks Like

A leak is spewing millions of tons of the invisible gas into the skies above Los Angeles

smithsonian.com

Thousands of feet beneath Los Angeles’ suburban San Fernando Valley, an environmental disaster is playing out in real time. Since October 23, an underground storage well at a natural gas storage facility in Aliso Canyon has been spewing methane and other pollutants. Now, an environmental group has released infrared aerial footage of the leak’s above-ground consequences.

The video, which was filmed by Environmental Defense Fund, shows the otherwise invisible leak that has displaced thousands of residents and prompted L.A. County to declare a state of emergency. Officials from SoCal Gas, which administers the well site near Porter Ranch, recently pinpointed the location of the leak to a shallow location within the 8,700-foot well.

Air sampling near the site met state safety thresholds, but residents have complained of dizziness, nausea and a foul odor. Despite the evacuations, the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment says that the gas will not create long-term health effects. They note that the odorless gas contains chemicals with noxious odors that allow people to identify leaks using their sense of smell. These chemicals can cause nausea, headaches and other complaints even in small, non-lethal amounts. However, some residents, claiming that there are deleterious long-term effects from the emissions, have filed a class-action lawsuit.

It will be February or March before SoCal Gas manages to stop the leak, says the company on their website. A preliminary estimate of greenhouse gas emissions released by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board suggests that the leak has already emitted over 1.6 million metric tons of methane and other gases. To put that number in perspective, that’s nearly 3.9 percent of the amount of methane emitted by California in 2013.

Methane can trap much more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide—28 to 36 times more. That makes the gas of particular concern to regulators. California recently announced that it will try to cut statewide methane emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

How much will the catastrophic leak at San Aliso undercut that goal? It isn’t yet certain: Officials are monitoring emissions using airplanes and will release final estimates once the leak has been mitigated by a relief well. Until then, the disaster will continue to play out in slow motion—and invisible to the human eye.

(h/t Ars Technica)

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