“When natural gas leaks into our air, its a big problem for our climate.”
By Dr. John J. Hidore
March 3, 2016—-Methane is an organic gas found in the environment. It is a powerful greenhouse gas, but does not stay in the atmosphere for very long. Methane is also a much cleaner fossil fuel than coal or oil. For this reason, among others, the use of natural gas, which is largely methane, has increased rapidly in recent years. This has resulted in large increases in emissions, atmospheric levels, and hazards.
Historic Changes in Atmospheric Methane
Time – Parts per Billion
100,000 BC 500ppb
70,000 BC 650
20,000 BC 350
1750 AD 722
19th Century 800
The New Mexico Methane Cloud
Natural gas has long been a product of oil drilling. Once oil drilling began natural gas was often found as a byproduct. For many decades the gas was simply burned as it reached the surface. Photographs over the Middle East taken in the daytime show long streams of black smoke coming from well sites. At night the oil fields stand out clearly because of these burning gas torches.
In the southwest of the United States, oil well drilling began in the early 1880’s. Here too, the natural gas was burned off. Only much later, when a demand for natural gas developed, was the escaping gas contained.
In January 2016 NASA reported that satellite data showed a cloud of natural gas in the atmosphere over the southern Great Plains. The cloud is not visible to the human eye. It is believed to have been created by years of drilling for oil and particularly during the drilling of wells where fracking is used.
Natural gas leaks during the drilling process are common. The cloud is centered over the state of New Mexico and may be a permanent fixture. As clouds go it is fairly large, but small when compared to the size of the state. Scientists believe that the cloud is not new, but may have been growing rapidly.
Over the Great Plains the addition of natural gas from cattle digestive tracts undoubtedly has contributed to the cloud. It should be pointed out that long before oil and gas drilling began, natural gas seeps were not uncommon in the area.
The California Gas Storage Leak
Known as the Porter Ranch Gas leak, the well began spewing methane into the atmosphere on October 23, 2015. The leak developed at a SoCalGas natural gas storage facility known as the Aliso Canyon site in the Santa Susana Mountains. The storage facility is the second largest in the United States. The leak, which developed about 8000 feet (2440 m) below the surface, ejected some 50 tons or more of methane per hour. In all more than two million metric tons of natural gas escaped into the atmosphere. It is believed to be the largest natural gas leak to occur as a result of mining oil and natural gas.
Federal law does not require safety valves on gas wells. Because the leak was so far below the surface, company officials knew it would take a long time to cap. It was not capped until February 18, 2016.
Natural gas by itself is not toxic, but many people complained of a variety of illnesses, which researchers at the University of Southern Cal said were due to additives that might pose a risk—added to make it easier for people to detect the gas. Among the health problems were eye and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and even nose bleeds. This leak was sufficient to force the removal of thousands of families from the immediate area and Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks
A second way in which the use of natural gas increases the atmospheric concentration of methane is through leakage in natural gas pipelines. Scattered around the world are thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines and almost all of them leak.
In Washington, D.C. recent research determined that there were about 6000 leaks in the pipeline network within the city. The average amount of natural gas leaked in Washington, D.C. is more than twice the natural average.
The leaking gas is determined to be from natural gas by its chemical nature. Mined natural gas contains other forms of volatile gas such as ethane and propane, which gas forming at the surface does not have. Recent studies also indicate that emission rates from leakage are as much as 75% higher than EPA estimates.
The Human Hazard
It is inevitable that leaks will occur in gas lines and in homes and other structures that utilize natural gas for cooking or heating. In many cases of leakage, the concentration is so high it is potentially explosive. Globally there have already been many cases of explosions occurring which result from leaking natural gas.
Homes and buildings frequently explode when leaking gas is ignited by a spark or open flame. There have been an untold number of such explosions. Perhaps the greatest gas line explosion in terms of human casualties was that known as the Ufa train disaster that occurred in Russia in 1989. Sparks from passing trains ignited gas leaking from an LPG line causing it to explode. Two locomotives and 38 passenger cars were derailed. More than 600 people were reported killed.
When natural gas leaks into our air, it’s a big problem for our climate. It is essential that utility and gas companies take responsibility to repair these leaks for the future health of our planet.