The Deepwater Horizon of the sky


They swore it would never happen again. For 87 days, the oil from the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig spewed into the environmentally sensitive Gulf of Mexico — and neither BP nor the federal government seemed to have any power to shut it off. There were times in the spring and summer of 2010 when it seemed like the damage to waters off Louisiana and to the coastline would never stop. When the rig was finally capped — more than 4 million barrels of crude oil later — the public was promised that such a catastrophe would never happen again, even though the tepid policies that so far have been enacted over the last five-plus years have not inspired much confidence .

Still, the United States and the world has been lucky so far in that there hasn’t been an offshore oil spill on the scale of the 2010 BP oil spill, at least not yet. But now, in the heavily populated Los Angeles Basin in Southern California, there is a pollution crisis that is so outrageous that in many ways it reminds me of the Deepwater Horizon.  But the one difference is that the massive methane leak at the energy facility in Aliso Canyon, Calif., is essentially a Deepwater Horizon of the sky. Like in 2010, no one seems to know when the leak is going to be capped, or how — or what the environmental impacts will be on the thousands of people who live near the leak. The popular website Vice calls the accident “one of the biggest environmental disasters in US history is happening right now, and you’ve probably never heard of it.”

Here’s more from Vice’s report on the crisis:

An enormous amount of harmful methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, California, at a startling rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. The gas, which carries with it the stench of rotting eggs due to the addition of a chemical called mercaptan, has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. Many residents have already filed lawsuits against the company that owns the facility, the Southern California Gas Company.

Footage taken on December 17 shows a geyser of methane gas spewing from the Earth, visible by a specialized infrared camera operated by an Earthworks ITC-certified thermographer. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released the footage last week, calling it “one of the biggest leaks we’ve ever seen reported” and “absolutely uncontained.”

In early December, the Southern California Gas Company said that plugging the leak, which sprang in mid-October, would take at least three more months. Right now, the single leak accounts for a quarter of the state’s entire methane emissions, and the leak has been called the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill in 2010.

“Our efforts to stop the flow of gas by pumping fluids directly down the well have not yet been successful, so we have shifted our focus to stopping the leak through a relief well,” Anne Silva, a spokesperson for the Southern California Gas Company, told Motherboard, adding that the company is still exploring other options to stop the leak. “The relief well process is on schedule to be completed by late February or late March.”

Indeed, the PR talk from Southern California Gas reminds me so much of BP five years ago that it’s scary. Meanwhile, the massive methane leak has unleashed an awful foul smell on the neighborhood — thanks to the presence of mercaptan, which carries the distinctive odor of rotting eggs and which is typically added to odorless methane so officials can detect leaks.

But the biggest environmental impact may be one that’s not immediately detectable: The impact upon climate change. Scientists say that methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to causing global warming, and it indeed it may already be the source of about one-fourth of all greenhouse gas pollution. In that regard, what is happening right now in Southern California is an unmitigated disaster. Hopefully, the official response will end up better and more effective than it was in the Gulf of Mexico, but to use probably the wrong metaphor, I’m not holding my breath.

Read more about the massive methane leak from Vice:

Learn more about our long battle for environmental justice in the Deepwater Horizon spill in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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