Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Porter Ranch methane gas leak is emerging from an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ situation to more common knowledge, with growing governmental, media, and social focus on this continuing manmade disaster. Likened increasingly to a land-based version of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, the leak has serious health implications that are leading to thousands being moved from their homes and looks likely to have, at the end, the equivalent climate impact equivalent of over 10 years of an average coal-fired plant.* This is both a massive and slow-motion disaster: slow-motion in that capping the leak is a difficult and time-consuming engineering challenge with little ability, it seems, to do more than watch the methane leak (with special cameras) and leak and leak for month after month until is finally capped.

There are at least four California Senate bills under consideration that call for moratoriums on new gas injections in this storage area, placing financial responsibility for the disaster on ‘the polluters’, and other measures. (See the material in Senate Porter Ranch Gas Leak Background and Bill Package 010816.)

An old adage is ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.  While wondering what ‘good’ really means, there is no question that this situation merits ‘crisis’ status and one question to ask, therefore, is “how can this crisis be used to generate meaningful change in our relationship with natural gas?”  Within this package of proposals, there seems to be a lack of new efforts focused on identifying and tackling future methane leaks more rapidly, efficiently, and effectively.

In short, it is well past time to institute more extensive, continuous, public mapping of methane leaks along with the requirement to and resources for rapidly addressing leaks.  With something along those lines, California (and the California Air Resources Board (CARB)) could become cutting-edge in the nation as to this underemphasized pollution issue and help drive forward the Administration’s methane leakage efforts.

Methane leakage is far from only a problem at fracking sites or at major storage sites — leakage is a problem through the entire cycle from drilling to end user. Many were stunned seeing the work of researchers who mapped methane leaks in Boston and Washington, DC.  As one discussion began,

Residents of Washington, DC are used to jokes about metaphorical hot air, humidity, and the swampy history of their city. But there’s something they may not know about the District: it’s overrun with methane, which sometimes makes manhole covers explode.

Alternatively, in Boston researchers mapped 3,356 spikes where methane was above 2.5 million parts per million, shown in yellow below, caused by methane leaks along 785 miles of road in the city.

Those leaks — all those yellow spikes — undermine the argument that ‘natural gas has half the emissions when burned’ because coal doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere between the mine and burning. Natural gas doesn’t look so great in total emissions profile if we take well to flame leakage rates seriously. If leakage rates are high enough, natural gas (methane) could actually be worse than coal because methane has 28-36 times the climate impact of carbon over 100 years.

Consider all those yellow spikes. Beside costing money, they create risks: risks of explosions, risks to health of those breathing the molecules, and risks through worsened climate change impacts.  All those spikes merit erasing but can’t be dealt with if they remain out of sight (and thus out of mind).

A robust mapping effort would not have to be expensive and could have significant benefits.  Very simply, California could move to put monitoring devices on public vehicles (school buses, police cars, busses).  It wouldn’t be perfect coverage but would provide rather robust and frequent monitoring.  Of course, the systems wouldn’t have to be limited to only methane.  Note that this has already been done.  Three Google mapping cars were equipped with Aclima monitors to provide air quality data in a test in the Denver area:

Three Street View cars took measurements of nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — air pollutants which can affect human health or climate change. …

Imagine constantly updated, publicly available information about the air quality of your community.  Writ large, from VOCs to CO2 to other pollutants, the pollutants all around us are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Data enables decision-making and action.  Visibility fosters support for that action.

California shouldn’t let the Porter Ranch crisis go to waste. There should be round-the-clock efforts to reduce and end the leak as fast as possible. The health and safety risks to individuals and community require continuous monitoring and addressing.  There must be measures to address the very real damages that local residents and communities have occurred. Measures are required for reducing risks into the future. And, measures with broader payoff merit implementing.  California should take a lesson from Porter Ranch and act so that methane leakage is never again ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’.

* Note: The calculation as to climate impact is a back of the envelope effort that merits more detailed analysis.

An original version of this article appeared on Get Smart Energy Smart! Now!

Photo credit Wikimedia commons.

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