It’s the gas leak that just won’t end. One whose impacts have now become so wide-ranging that it has prompted California governor Brown to issue a declaration of emergency. But, even with vast state resources now in place to help deal with this disaster, the impacts are likely to be long-lasting and far-reaching. Serious impacts both to public health and to California’s contribution to global atmospheric, oceanic, and glacial warming.
A Dangerous Industry With Long-Lasting Impacts
(The Environmental Defense Fund issued this aerial infrared footage of a massive gas leak at Porter Ranch, California. In total, more than 180 million pounds of the gas has already leaked from the disaster site — increasing California’s methane emissions by 25 percent, sickening hundreds of local residents, and forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes. Video Source: The Environmental Defense Fund.)
Poking holes in the Earth or blasting it apart with high-pressure flows of water to access fossil fuels has always been a dangerous proposition. Much of the stuff is volatile, poisonous, and often under high pressure requiring special equipment to regulate and contain its flow. Often, for decades or even centuries after a well has been exhausted for commercial use, it can still represent a danger to the public. Not to mention the fact that each pound of carbon extracted and burned contributes to pushing the globe toward a terrible hothouse mass extinction event.
It’s the kind of generational legacy hazard we often associate with nuclear energy. But when one considers the combined impacts of human-forced warming of the globe and the potential for toxic blowouts, the often invisible dangers of fossil fuel are revealed. Leaks, or related contamination of water and ground, the long lasting-impact of thousands of old coal mines or oil and gas wells along with the climate impact of the carbon already burned is something probably even worse than the nuclear hazard.
Just One Leak Increases California Emissions by 25 Percent, Sickens Residents
Back in October of 2015, an old gas well in the neighborhood of Porter Ranch, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, began spewing copious volumes of poisonous natural gas into the air. The well emitted 100,000 pounds of gas each hour. A rate that in one single event increased the methane emissions of the State of California by fully 25 percent.
But aside from massively and unexpectedly contributing to an already very dangerous global warming nightmare that is setting off increasingly extreme weather and geophysical changes across the Earth, the torrent of gas spewing from Porter Ranch instantly put residents and animals at risk. People in the region began experiencing wooziness almost immediately and the toxic impacts of long-term exposure to the gas leak can only be guessed at this time.
More specifically, people in the area complained of smells like propane or rotten eggs. Soon afterward, residents began experiencing an odd sense of disorientation. Nose bleeds, headaches, nausea, nagging coughs, sore throat problems, and fatigue followed. The victims included many of the residents of the Porter Ranch neighborhood as well as school children. In total, all of the schools in the region have now been evacuated along with the dwellers in more than 2,000 residences near the leak.
Serious Risk to Public Health Covered Up By Gas Industry
Natural gas in high concentrations impedes the flow of oxygen to the body which may result in a number of health problems, especially over extended periods of time. In very high concentrations, the gas causes asphyxiation which can rapidly result in death. But, also very concerning, is the fact that gas may be laced with dangerous concentrations of sulfur, hydrogen sulfide or other chemicals which can have serious and potentially long-lasting impacts to many major organ systems in the human body. The tell-tale rotten eggs smell residents of Porter Ranch reported is often a sign, not only of the odorant mercaptan, but also of the presence of these dangerous toxins.
Little is now known about the specific harm and danger to those exposed to this massive gas leak — which has been aptly described as a Deepwater Horizon on land. This is mainly due to the fact that SoCalGas, like so many fossil fuel based corporations in the current day, behaved in a reprehensible and irresponsible manner.
(Engineers still are unsure of the exact location of the Porter Ranch gas leak in the well shaft. Solutions include a time-consuming drilling of a relief well more than 8,000 feet deep. Engineers suspect that the leak may have developed where the cement well casing ends some 990 feet below the surface. SoCalGas issued the following graphic as a response to critics who stated the company wasn’t acting fast enough to stop the leak. Image source: Southern California Gas.)
The Porter Ranch gas well was just like many of the thousands-upon-thousands of wells being drilled across this country today. It produced gas until the company owning the well could no longer make a profit from selling it. At this time, the well was fitted with a blowout prevent or to prevent dangerous gas leaks of the kind Porter Ranch experienced over past months. But years later, and with no apparent explanation other than the cost-saving but risk-increasing practice of cannibalizing old well equipment, the blowout preventer was removed. Gas built up in or around the well. And by October of 2015, due to a fossil fuel company’s failure to provide for the safety of people living near the old well, the gas came erupting out.
Unfortunately, as has been the case with the related issue of climate change on a vast scale throughout the industry, and as has also been the case anytime one of these corporations’ hazardous ventures resulted in risk or harm, the first response was denial. SoCalGas couldn’t deny the fact that the gas leak had occurred. But it could deny the impacts. And so, making the false claim that scientists supported their communication, it did.
According to CNN, SoCalGas continuously issued the following statement during the first months of the gas leak:
“The well is located in an isolated, mountain area more than a mile away from and more than 1,200 feet higher than the closest home or public area… natural gas is not toxic and … its odorant is harmless at the minute levels at which it is added to natural gas.”
After residents and animals experienced health problems in the area, it’s become pretty clear that SoCalGas wasn’t telling the truth. It was instead attempting to cover-up both risks and ongoing harm in one of its industrial leak zones. A sadly and reprehensibly common practice.
One More Bad Act By Fossil Fuels
SoCalGas has since backed away from this initial statement and is now simply claiming it will do all it can to plug the well — a process which, like capping the Deepwater Horizon blowout, may take months. One that will take place after the health of Porter Ranch residents has been impacted and after tens of millions of pounds of greenhouse gas trapping methane have erupted into an already carbon over-burdened atmosphere.
To call such industrial activity irresponsible would be a vast understatement. And, given such actions by this destructive industry, one cannot help but wonder why the entirely appropriate campaign to urge individuals and institutions to take the moral high road and divest from all fossil fuels hadn’t started sooner. But now that such a just campaign is active, individuals, institutions, cities, states and nations now have the opportunity show their disapproval for continued risky activity, cover-ups by fossil fuel industry, and an ongoing effort to indefinitely dump heat-trapping carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere by entirely removing their monetary support of this harmful and amoral industry. It’s time to say goodbye to both the toxins and the lies and excuses that are also all-too-toxic to our public discourse.
Hat Tip to Caroline (for showing early, prescient, concern about this particular gas leak)
Hat Tip to DT Lange (for his amazingly thorough research on this subject)