Southern California Gas Company’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. (Photo: Scott L., Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
Since October, a leaking underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles has released vast amounts of methane, its main ingredient, into the atmosphere, becoming one of the nation’s worst environmental accidents, as methane starts off 100 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Host Steve Curwood and Anthony Ingraffea, a civil and environmental engineer at Cornell University discuss the blowout, including. Professor Ingraffea's belief that this disaster may be a harbinger of what's ahead for these aging storage facilities.
CURWOOD: From the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to cope with a massive natural gas leak in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch. When the disaster began in October, as many as two million pounds of natural gas were spewing into the air every day from the Southern California Gas Aliso Canyon storage field, and thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate. Those still in the area cite health effects from the volatile organic chemicals and mercaptans—those rotten-egg smelling compounds added to gas to help leak detection - and say it’s making them sick.
PORTER RANCH RESIDENT 1: Nauseous, and I wake up sneezing and coughing and headaches.
PORTER RANCH RESIDENT 2: A lot of bloody noses too…kids getting sick, pets.
MCMANN: I have terrible headaches. My daughter experienced stomach pain. My son’s got nose bleeds. It’s just really bad.
CURWOOD: While this leak is not as visible as the blowout of BP’s Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, for health and the climate, it could be an even worse disaster. Aliso Canyon is the largest underground gas storage facility in the western US, and uses old oil fields as reservoirs for high pressure natural gas. Anthony Ingraffea is a professor of Engineering at Cornell University. Welcome to Living on Earth.
INGRAFFEA: Good to be with you today, Steve.
CURWOOD: First, give me the big picture here. What's going on at this gas storage field there in Southern California, Aliso Canyon?
INGRAFFEA: There has been a major blowout. That's the oil and gas terminology of a well that was used, along with 100 others at that storage facility both to inject natural gas into a storage region about 9000 feet underground, and to extract the gas from that storage region so that it can go to customers. The blowout is the result of a failure of one of the - I'm using oil and gas terminology here - one of the strings of casing, steel pipe, that line that well. And when that casing failed, gas under very high pressure, roughly 2,700 pounds per inch or more, was able to escape and find its way directly into the rock formation surrounding the well, and it found a path through the rock formation, through cracks, faults, joints and is escaping not from the surface at the well head, but from the surface away from the well head, literally out in a field.
CURWOOD: How much gas is being released? How much has been released so far? Do the folks that operate this even know?
INGRAFFEA: Well, there have been various measurements made since late October when this leak was first discovered. It's releasing somewhere around 1,200 tons of natural gas per day, and that varies according to pressure variation and atmospheric conditions. There has been something like 120,000 tons of natural gas, which is mostly methane, released into the atmosphere. That's about one-quarter of the state of California's monthly methane emissions from all sources, or, if you want to put it on a national basis, that's about 15 percent of the hourly methane emissions in the entire oil and gas industry in the United States.
CURWOOD: How fair is it to say this is a methane disaster?
INGRAFFEA: It is a methane disaster. It is, in my opinion, a methane disaster that when the final count of dollars and lives impacted is assessed will be similar to what we had in the Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a few summers back. Luckily, at this point, no one has been killed. So in terms of deaths, it's insignificant compared to Macondo. But in terms of environmental impact on the daily lives of thousands of people and cost, we're talking about many, many, many billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars when all is said and done here.
CURWOOD: Now, what exactly has SoCal Gas done to try to plug this leak, and how much more gas is likely to come out before they get the situation fixed?
INGRAFFEA: What SoCalGas did when they realized the magnitude of the problem was to call in experts, a company called Boots & Coots. They are a well-known safety and well rescue company that works all around the world to try to save wells that have blowouts and the first thing they tried to do was - again, using oil and gas terminology – kill the well, by pouring a high density liquid into the well in hopes that the pressure exerted by that column of high density liquid would overcome the pressure of the gas which is coming up the well and out into the geological formations. The problem is that the leak in the casing is occurring relatively shallow - it's only about 500 feet below the surface of a nearly 9,000 foot deep well. But the pressure at the bottom of a column of liquid 500 feet high was insufficient to overcome the roughly 2,700 pounds per square inch of gas pressure. And so, that column of liquid could not force the gas down below the breach in the casing to stop the flow into the atmosphere, so that failed. So they resorted to the next and current method which was used at the Macondo well, to drill a so-called relief well so that it intersects this leaking well not where it's leaking, but at its base 8,700 feet underground, or through the casing, the steel pipe there, and inject cement at the place where the gas is coming from. There are two of these relief wells being drilled, hopefully one of them works. There are many things that could go wrong. So there is no certainty here that a fix is guaranteed. So Southern California, SoCalGas, the people in Southern California, and the atmosphere of the planet is going to experience for another month or two of a large methane release.
CURWOOD: How many methane storage facilities are there like this around the country?
INGRAFFEA: Hundreds, some of them larger, many of them smaller. Each of them has tens to hundreds of wells of the type that we're talking about here. Most of the wells are repurposed, they were originally oil or gas wells. They were production wells, so they were repurposed at some point in their lives to be access wells to a storage reservoir. That is fundamentally the issue that we should be talking about here.
CURWOOD: And each of these facilities is just a crack in the so-called casing, this pipe that reaches down into the well, they're just one crack away from a disaster like this?
INGRAFFEA: Yes, it goes back into the history of oil and gas operations. The well we're talking about was drilled in 1953, 1954. So it's over 60 years old, and it was never designed to last that long. It was designed to produce oil for some decades, then be plugged and taken out of service. But in the 1970s it was repurposed, and since the 1970s it's been operating in its current mode, and as you can well imagine, as Paul Simon used to say, "Everything put together sooner or later falls apart." Especially if it’s underground. These are steel casings. They initially have some sort of corrosion inhibitor applied to them, but eventually after much use and flow of gases and liquids inside the casing, and exposure of the outside of the casing to natural gases and fluids, corrosion occurs. And I have no doubt given my professional experience that the casing in this case that ruptured experienced some corrosion. So, what we're seeing here is what the industry knows, an increasing rate of such problems. So you can call this the proverbial tip of the iceberg, since there are tens of thousands of such wells.
CURWOOD: It sounds counterintuitive if you think, hey, 400 or 500 feet down, not so hard to get to. But in this case…
INGRAFFEA: You can't put people down a well. The casing that's ruptured is seven inches in diameter. So you can conceivably, regularly - they should be regularly doing this - drop miniaturized cameras down that well-bore and inspect it. It's expensive. They have to take that well out of operation. And this particular well, it would actually be impossible because there's no longer a safety valve at the bottom of the well. So they can shut off gas pressure at the surface when the well was in regular operation, but they can no longer shut off the gas pressure 8,700 feet underground. When the final chapter of the accident is written, just like every other major accident involving a societal structure - an aircraft crash, a bridge failure, there was not any one thing. It's many things concatenated. I mean you look at all those concatenated things, you say what's the probability of that happening...pretty low, but then you multiply the number of wells by the probability of any one well failure and pretty soon you have what you have here - an occurrence.
CURWOOD: Professor, if you were in charge, what would you do to address this danger?
INGRAFFEA: I would do the same thing that the federal government did with the aging aircraft problem 25 years ago. Every well of this type in operation in the United States must now experience federal regulation, uniform federal regulation across the country that mandates that each such well is inspected on an increasing frequency, proportional to its age, using the best available technology, down-hole cameras or whatever that means, so that every well has a safety record, and that every time an inspection is performed, a judgment is made, as to whether that well can continue in operation as is, whether it needs repair, and if it needs repair the repair is mandated over a very short period of time before the well can be put back into operation, or if it's determined that the well is no longer fit for service, it's taken out of service. So again, as technology changes and as we understand more about the operations of our planet, i.e. climate change, regulations should change accordingly. That's the rational thing to do.
CURWOOD: There's been a lot of talk about expanding natural gas production around the world to help address the threat of climate disruption, people saying the equivalence here compared say to coal means that natural gas is a better bet, a better bridge. Your assessment?
INGRAFFEA: That's an absolutely incorrect, unscientific assessment. All of the latest peer-reviewed scientific literature indicates that if the leakage of methane, natural gas, into the atmosphere worldwide is greater than about three percent of the total production of natural gas in the world, it's the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Because when you burn methane, you get carbon dioxide, which we know is primary greenhouse gas, but when you don't burn it and leak it - as we're seeing it in Aliso Canyon - it's even worse, because methane is a much potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So all of thee scientific literature published in the last few years - and this question has only been addressed in the last few years - points to that roughly three percent cutoff. And again, all the peer-reviewed literature that's been published in the last few years shows that in the US alone, the leak rate is greater than three percent. So, in the US we should not be converting coal-fired electricity generating plants to natural gas. We're going in the wrong direction. We're making climate change worse, not better, and of course, when we look across the world, we like to pride ourselves as being the best at everything, and of course, our leak rate is "low", you can only surmise what the leak rate of methane would be in other countries where there is not such tight regulatory control. So, no, I do not in any way, means or form, ascribe to, believe, buy into the notion of natural gas being a bridge fuel or a down-ramp to a clean renewable energy future. It's scientific nonsense. People in the industry know it. People in the scientific community know it. Unfortunately, our political leaders have to make decisions based on something other than science.
CURWOOD: Anthony Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University. Tony, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.
INGRAFFEA: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: SoCalGas says it is working “as quickly as safety will allow to stop the leak”.
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