The Methane leak in Porter Ranch, California, which has been in the spotlight since late December, has now prompted a significant (although reluctant) admission of danger from the government. The Governor of California, Jerry Brown declared a “State of Emergency” over the situation, which involves thousands of pounds of high-powered greenhouse gas spewing into the air and atmosphere. But the state’s declaration is not only extremely late, it does very little to actually plug the problem.
The leak is not fresh news, by any means. In fact, Southern California Gas Company has known about it since sometime in late October. The public spotlight on the crisis has only been focused on the gas leak since the release of an infrared video, visually illustrating how the methane is blasting up from the earth like a man-made methane geyser. The gas is pumping out at a furious rate of 100,000 pounds since its emergence, and both the government and Southern California Gas Company have been fervently asserting that residents have nothing to worry about – because Methane “is not harmful to human beings”, and there will not be any “long-term effects from exposure.” So why have nearly 2,500 families have been relocated with another 1,800 on their way out?
Because, first and foremost: Methane is extremely flammable – explosively, so. And with schools full of children, and houses full of families, the liability risk of accidental methane explosions is simply too high for either the government or SoCal Gas to take. Second, the gas is an asphyxiant. If a person’s house fills up with methane while they are sleeping, they will likely suffocate. Further, while Methane itself may not be harmful to human beings the chemicals with which it is treated, are. They give methane that classic “rotten eggs” smell, and can cause dizziness, nausea, loss of coordination, rashes, bloody noses and vomiting.
Beyond health problems, the environmental repercussions for an accident of this scale are daunting. Methane traps almost 84 times more heat radiation in the atmosphere than the infamous carbon dioxide. And a leak this size is unheard of in reported history. So depending on how much more methane is released into the air before the input is cut, there could be some strange climate related repercussions manifesting in the coming months. We can only wait and see…
So this leak is obviously a consequential problem and for the sake of good publicity, Governor Brown decided to do something about it, declaring California’s state of emergency. Well done, Governor. But why now?
The leak has been spewing methane for two months – SoCal Gas Company knew about this that entire time. The state government of California knew about it, too. But only a few days after the public became involved with the issue, Brown reluctantly declared the state of emergency because of “requests in the community.” This is troubling, but it would be forgivable if the state declaration actually did something to stop the emergency. But it doesn’t. It sternly calls for SoCal Gas to fix the problem as fast as possible and to try new solutions if those ones fail, though it allocates no state funds to stemming the catastrophe. Estimates say that the leak will remain unplugged until late March.
The takeaway from all of this is bleak: a state sanctioned “state of emergency” is only declared when the public becomes aware of the emergency and expresses fear for their health. The California Government and SoCal Gas Company have been downplaying the severity of the threat to both humans and the state of the environment for months – though, whether they did so out of embarrassment or fear is unclear. They have quietly evacuated thousands of people, and secretly invested heavily in potential solutions. If it hadn’t been for the infrared video footage that visualized the colorless, odorless methane geyser, state and private interests would have swept this whole mess under the rug without a word. But because such an outraged audience has gathered, California is now in a state of emergency and it looks to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Sources: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/state-emergency-california-toxic-gas-leak-160108203124288.html, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35244634, http://www.theweathernetwork.com/us/news/articles/climate-and-environment/california-declares-state-of-emergency-over-methane-leak/62084/, http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/220717-state-of-emergency-declared-over-californias-ongoing-methane-leak, http://www.scpr.org/news/2015/12/09/56118/video-porter-ranch-methane-leak-plume-made-visible/, http://www.newsweek.com/porter-ranch-california-methane-gas-leak-crisis-412807, http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=92\