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Porter Ranch's Gas Leak Threatens the Environment and Housing Prices

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Southern California residents are under attack by a Godzilla sized stream of methane, a greenhouse gas that is the major component of the natural gas that has been leaking from an Aliso Canyon gas storage facility near Porter Ranch, a Los Angeles neighborhood. The Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) reportedly detected the leak on October 23rd with a series of unsuccessful fixes and complaints from residents following suit. The FAA has also issued an order banning any aircraft from flying below 2,000 feet over the effected area. Below is a table showing the composition of natural gas.

METHANECH470-90%
ETHANEC2H60-20%
PROPANEC3H80-20%
BUTANEC4H100-20%
CARBON DIOXIDECO20-5%
OXYGENO20-2%
NITROGENN20-5%
HYDROGEN SULPHIDEH2S0-5%
RARE GASESA, HE, NE, XETRACE

Everything We Know About the Natural Gas Leak So Far

After about six weeks since the gas leak was detected, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a lawsuit against SoCalGas on December 7th for not informing nearby residents of the leak sooner. The leak is coming from an 11 inch metal casing surrounding a 7 inch in diameter well pipe that's stretching all the way down to a natural gas reservoir located over 8,500 feet below the surface. Small leaks are routine with well lines and can easily be fixed by putting down some fluid and readjusting the well head accordingly. The company tried this five times amid a growing number of complaints from residents before it became clear that this wasn't a small, simple leak. In early November, SoCalGas announced it would dig relief wells to try and capture some of the leaking gas, but the completion of those wells were projected to take several months. By November 28th, the California Air Resources Board reported that 58,000 kilograms of methane was leaking from the well per hour. A more recent measurement on December 12th finds that number to have dropped to 36,000 kilograms per hour, suggesting that the leak is slowing down, but not stopping.

A few days later, the Katz family, living about one mile from the site of the leak, has filed a personal case against SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, seeking compensation due to the financial burden of their health care costs since the leak occurred. With five children in the Katz household, the parents claim that they've all had to deal health issues during this crisis, but their two-year daughter was hit the hardest and spent four days in the hospital with breathing problems. Since the leak began back in late October, there have been similar complaints from hundreds of nearby residents ranging from nosebleeds, headaches, and nausea. Natural gas has no odor, so the additive that gives natural gas its "rotten egg" warning smell is so powerful that has forced 1,800 families to relocate, 700 said to be voluntarily and the rest applying for assistance.

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The gas company, while struggling to deal with this unmitigated disaster, has offered up several services for residents affected by the gas leak. SoCalGas created a new website, Aliso Canyon Updates, to provide people with the latest information and online claim forms. The company is also offering additional relocation accommodations and reimbursements for customers making their own arrangements.

Meanwhile, progress on the relief well and plans to plug the leak have been slow. The conditions are so dangerous from the leaking methane that workers have to drill slowly and are forced to stop every few hundred feet to cool down their equipment. Any electronic or mechanical equipment being used is done so carefully from fear of sparking an explosion. This is why crews are only able to work during the day time because work lamps increase the risk of setting of another disaster.

Methane and You

The important thing to know about methane is that it carries no long term health risks. That doesn't mean it'll be okay for you to be exposed to methane for an extended period of time, but the damaging effects are short term. Methane is a chemical compound that consists of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms (CH4) and is found naturally in areas where decomposition take place. It is a colorless and odorless gas that is extremely flammable and, in high concentrations, can displace oxygen from the air.

Methane is:

  • Not a carcinogen
  • Not known to be a reproductive hazard
  • Not a mutagen
  • Not harmful with long term exposure
  • Not harmful in low concentrations

Methane, however, will cause oxygen deficiency and related symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, dizziness, nosebleed, and unconsciousness, if inhaled in large amounts. Methane is also 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because of its ability to displace oxygen and absorb heat, but it doesn't get as much attention because it doesn't linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide; its effects are more harmful, but will only last for about 20 years in the atmosphere. So, how do we get methane out of the air in our homes, especially during a natural gas leak? You don't.

breathing-facemask

The best home air purifiers are great for a lot of things, like filtering out particles, pet dander, pollen, bacteria, and VOCs from the air using HEPA filters and activated carbon, but top commercial air purifier models like the Austin Air HealthMate+ Air Purifier or the Aller Air 5000 Vocarb aren't suited for absorbing methane. At best, for a leak like the one affecting Porter Ranch, an air purifier using activated carbon will absorb mercaptan from natural gas and help remove the foul stench of rotten eggs. Mercaptan is the chemical compound added as a safety precaution, allowing people to detect when there is a gas leak. So, you may be safe from the smell, you won't get cancer, and your babies won't grow up and become part of the X-Men, but there will definitely be a downside to such a massive gas leak.

Environmental Impact of Methane

Methane is the second leading greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. As previously mentioned, methane is about 80 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because methane is much more effective at absorbing heat over a 20 year period. At a time when 196 countries have recently agreed in Paris to adopt new measures that will keep global warming above 2 degree Centigrade of pre-industrial levels, the current gas leak in California throws a wild curve ball in society's plan to meet their goal. Climate scientists say that the 2 degree Centigrade threshold is a safety net to prevent us from seeing more violent climate changes and we're already well on our way to blowing through it. Passing the 2 degree Centigrade threshold won't result in an end-of-the-world scenario like a Roland Emmerich natural disaster film (Emmich directed The Day After Tomorrow and 2012), but it would result in more severe droughts, higher sea levels, floods, heatwaves, and more powerful storms.

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California, which adopted tougher emissions standards to combat global warming pledged to reduce methane emissions by 40 percent in 2030. The current gas leak from the Aliso Canyon site has already increased the state's methane emission by 25 percent in nearly two months and is still going strong. The amount of methane leaked into the atmosphere is comparable to well over .80 metric tons of carbon dioxide, as the air board estimated. To put that into visual terms, imagine 160,000 cars running running non-stop for a year and consuming 90 million gallons of gasoline. That might not seem so bad, if those estimates weren't for a time frame of less than two months. The total amount of methane emission from the leak is still yet to be determined as thousands of kilograms worth of methane continues to be released and the relief well isn't expected to plug the leak for another two to four months. With this huge boost of greenhouse gases rising up to the atmosphere, we may hit that 2 degree Centigrade threshold sooner than expected.

Real Estate Impact of Gas Leak

The exodus from Porter Ranch and other affected areas may continue to grow as the gas leak continues. As more people begin to leave, SoCalGas is trying to accommodate home owners with home maintenance and increased police patrols in vacant neighborhoods while they're temporarily relocated. That might not be enough, however, because people generally don't like living near a ticking time bomb. Realtors have been selling homes in Porter Ranch for over a decade now, but business has dropped off dramatically since the leak started. Some real estate agents consider the lack of offers and interest in Porter Ranch homes is only a short-term problem. After a few months, once the leak is resolved, business will pick up again, but others aren't so optimistic.

The leak will no doubt come up in future transactions, especially with recent applications for 12 new oil well drills being reviewed. Most of the homes in the gated Porter Ranch community are valued over one million dollars, but may have dropped in value since the leak. Realtors also aren't trained well enough to be experts on oil wells and leaks, leaving potential buyers to do their own research which may warn buyers from purchasing in affected areas. One something as bad as the Porter Ranch leak happens, it's difficult to get that out of people's heads rumors begin to circulate, which will be tough to explain away. Plus, if a leak like this can happen once, it can happen again, which many home owners or buyers may not want to deal with.