Some are calling a methane leak in Southern California the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Since October, tens of thousands of metric tons of methane gas have been leaking from a well at Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon facility. By some estimates, that has increased the state’s methane emissions by 25 percent.
That’s bad news for the climate: Methane is 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after it’s released into the atmosphere.
The methane leak has been hard on the neighboring community as well, where thousands of residents who live nearby have been evacuated. Many say they’ve had breathing problems as a result of the incident.
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“They keep wanting to call this a leak, like it’s a small thing that’s fixable, but it’s not,” says R. Rex Parris, an attorney representing some of the evacuated residents. “The well blew out. And the reason it blew out: It was a 70-year-old well. They had removed all of the safety features back in 1979, although they reported to the state that they repaired the safety features.”
The environmental implications of this leak could be enormous. Parris says every month, the leaking well has the same impact as six coal-fired power plants operating for 20 years.
“It’s a huge impact. In many respects, though, there is a silver lining to this. Just as our highways or bridges are falling apart, and people see it and are aware of it, the infrastructure in the oil industry is also falling apart. This is the first of what we think are going to be many of these situations to come throughout the country.”
Parris and his clients want the site closed to prevent similar incidents at the site and for the company to pay damages.
“There are very good reasons for it to shut down,” Parris says. “This was an oil extraction field, and there are hundreds of old wells. And they’ve built houses on these old wells that are now acting as conduits for this gas they’re storing to leak out. So we don’t think they can make this a safe facility.”
SoCalGas says it hopes to repair the leak by March.