As Californians struggle to address a massive leak of natural gas that’s forced the evacuation of thousands of homes and left countless residents feeling nauseous, green groups are hoping that the incident draws more attention to what’s been a literally invisible problem.
Natural gas is largely methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. So in addition to making people sick, the California leak could have serious consequences for the climate.
The leak from a natural-gas-storage field in Aliso Canyon, outside of Los Angeles, has been spewing since October, sending tons of methane into the atmosphere. And Southern California Gas Company, the utility that owns the facility in question, says it could be months before it’s stopped up.
California has estimated that the leak is emitting between 40 and 64 tons of methane every hour, and that the leak is increasing the state’s total emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by a quarter. As of Monday, more than 77,000 metric tons of methane had escaped, the equivalent of more than 732 million gallons of gasoline, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.
The leaking gas well has forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 families from the Porter Ranch neighborhood, with more than 1,000 set to be relocated. Residents have been complaining of nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, and vomiting from breathing in chemicals known as mercaptans, which are added so the gas has an odor. Lawyers have also reportedly detected toxins such as hydrogen sulfide and benzene in the air, which also carry health impacts.