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California’s Man-Made Methane Leak – One More Straw to the Camels Back

Another environmental catastrophe reared its ugly head last week. Families in California were encouraged to evacuate their homes, take up residence in motels, and even prompted to buy oxygen filtration systems because danger is quite literally, in the air of Aliso Canyon, California.

The violent methane leak erupted in late October, and has been belching noxious gas into the Earth’s atmosphere ever since. As is the case with most bad news, people need to actually see something in order to grasp the potential consequences, but because of methane’s odorless, colorless qualities, the public has not been able to perceive the problem at all. That is, until recently. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently released aerial infrared video footage of the methane plume, which illustrates just how horrifyingly serious this problem is. And it is stomach turning: a black arm of undulating methane gas billows from the ground, reaching up towards the heavens like an angry arm from hell. By all accounts, this disaster is on par with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, and the long-term effects could be even worse.

Meanwhile, adjacent to this terror is the small community of Porter Ranch. Residents here have been assured and reassured that there is no cause for alarm, the spill will be contained soon and methane gas poses no threat to human health. Nevertheless, the chemicals that methane is treated with smell like rotten eggs and cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, and nosebleeds. Southern California Gas, the company responsible for this travesty, has already relocated some 1700 families, and is even offering to reimburse anyone who buys household air purifying systems. There are already a number of lawsuits being filed against SoCal Gas. So understandably they are trying to prevent more from piling up.

Beyond these risks to human health, there is something far more sinister at play. In recent years, the ability of carbon dioxide to trap heat within the atmosphere has become famous. But CO2 is a relatively weak greenhouse gas (GHG) when compared to methane, which is far more effective at trapping heat close to the Earth – thirty times more effective, to be exact. Naturally, methane is released from lakes, melting ice sheets, and livestock like cattle or sheep – even these natural inputs are enough to make climate scientists nervous for the future of Earth. And now, this ominous methane deluge…

The volatile spill is pumping out nearly 50 tons of methane gas per hour. Thus far, 72000 tons have been injected into our air, and the brain trust at SoCal Gas still has no idea how to stop it. They’ve tried plugging the hole, and they’re trying to drill relief wells, but even hopeful estimates claim that the leak won’t be fully throttled until mid-February. By which time, there could be another 70 tons of methane floating around. And unlike oil spills, there aren’t even crude ways of extracting this toxic mess once it’s released. Who knows what kind of environmental repercussions there may be?


The scientific consequences of this devastation won’t be fully understood until they’ve played out, but the social and economic effects are predictable: SoCal Gas will be fined a hefty fee for their trespasses and will be held responsible for restoration, America will be utterly ashamed and will solemnly vow to do something to make amends for this error and prevent it from ever happening again. Then, they will forget all about it. And several years down the line another, bigger, meaner leak of some new toxic nature will spring somewhere else – and that may be the final straw. But when or where the point of no return is, remains unclear.

Humanity can still do something to avoid this doom. The recent Paris Climate Summit marked a shift in international perspective towards the climate problem – though, whether real action will actually be taken has yet to be seen. We need to address the issue from all angles and not just from profit and politically driven motives such as carbon permit trading and unfair government action which only benefits the very elite. Equally important, geoengineering and climate modification techniques must finally be acknowledged and openly discussed, instead of continually being ignored as if they do not exist. Global leaders can pat each other on the back for acknowledging the problem, but until steps are taken to rein in our effect on this planet our fate will remain the same: Ruin.

For the people living in and around the area affected by this torrential leak, life may not return to normal for some time. Doubtlessly, reporters and media hacks will descend upon the region like vultures, whilst engineers toil tirelessly to try and fix the problem. Many more families will be evacuated, and thousands more tons of methane will be spilled. The appallingly destructive affect humanity is having in the environment has gotten out of control – all one can do at this point is cope with the aftermath, and hope for the best. With any luck, this straw won’t be the one to break the camels back.


Will Brendza
Will Brendza is a freelance journalist and aimless adventurer based out of the Rocky Mountains, a fearless student of science and a keen outdoorsman. After having witnessed firsthand the environmental abominations taking place both abroad and at home in the US, he resolved to spread the knowledge and drive for global sustainability. When he isn't writing or reading a good book, he can usually be found exploring foreign countries, savoring craft breweries or somewhere deep within the wilderness of Colorado."

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