The Aymara of the Andes have a saying: everything on the earth and above it belongs to God; everything under it belongs to the devil, whom they call El Tio (the Uncle). When they work the mines, risking life and limb for high wages, they understand they are making a deal with the devil, and they pay homage in the form of offerings of coca leaves and alcohol in dark shrines that dot the tunnels of Bolivia.
It’s a fair metaphor for the rest of the world. Just about every form of pollution, be it greenhouse gases, acid mine runoff, or urban smog, comes from bringing that which is below ground to the surface.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the hills above Los Angeles. Natural gas well SS 25 in Aliso Canyon was drilled in 1953; it is 8,750 feet deep. In 1979, its leaking safety valve was removed but not replaced—because the well was not within one hundred yards of a home. On October 23, 2015, the Southern California Gas Company (subsidiary of Sempra Energy) lost control of the well. Natural gasses, mostly methane, under pressure, erupted from the well, and have continued spewing vast quantities of greenhouse gasses into the air ever since. Company officials now say they may not be able to stop the leak until late March 2016.
While the leak has been compared the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so far it has carried a much quieter profile. That’s because it’s invisible except if you use infrared technology, as demonstrated in the remarkable aerial and ground-based videos linked here. The nearby community of Porter Ranch, however, can smell it and feel it in their throats. To date, over 11,000 people have been evacuated and two schools closed. Air traffic, including planes flying into Burbank, has been re-routed, due to fears a plane could produce a spark that would ignite the 1,000-foot-tall methane cloud. If it does ignite, either from the ground or the air, expect thousands of videos to inundate YouTube as the denizens of the San Fernando Valley look north in surprise.
Officials and environmentalists alike have been shocked to learn the quantity of greenhouse gasses spewing from the leak: about 1,000 metric tons of methane each day (or over 25% of the entire state’s daily methane emissions). Assuming the leak persists for five months, it will release 150,000 metric tons.
Because not all greenhouse gases are CO2, they are converted into CO2 equivalent (CO2e) based on their effects on the climate. While methane is a far more potent contributor to climate change than CO2, it is shorter lived in the environment; it degrades faster. Over a 100-year time horizon, it is 25 times more potent than CO2; if we use a 20-year time horizon, focusing on the critical next two decades when greenhouse gases may peak, it is 72 times more potent (some use 86 times). Thus, the well accident total of 150,000 metric tons of methane is equivalent to 10.8 million metric tons of CO2.
Using the 20-year time horizon (and a factor of 86 rather than 72), the Environmental Defense Fund is live-tracking the amount of methane and CO2e released.
Let’s put this in perspective. California, which has committed itself to landmark legislation to reduce greenhouse gases, estimates its emissions each year from all sources (e.g. transportation, industrial, agricultural, residential, etc.). From 2000 thru 2012, the state has seen a slight increase and recently a slight decrease in its emissions. In recent years, California has emitted about 460 million tons of CO2e annually. With this well accident, which accounts for over 2% of the entire state’s annual CO2e emissions, the state will almost certainly see an increase in greenhouse gas emissions next year.
The volume of the leak has been equated with putting seven million new cars on the road, or five times the CO2e emissions of the BP oil spill. Chris Clarke has compared the emissions to all the electric cars that Californian’s have purchased, or investments in solar energy, or other lifestyle changes that average citizens (like myself) have done to reduce emissions. I lost quite a bit of money buying a poor electric car years ago before the technology was figured out; I’m currently sitting in a 62-degree house to reduce my natural gas use. Much of these efforts, certainly mine but also statewide, have been swamped by SoCal Gas’ release. As Clarke puts it, “Some of us spent significant amounts to reduce our climate footprints, only to see a huge chunk of those overall gains wiped out by one gas well owned by one corporation.” The emissions from the leak have also swamped Sempra Energy’s purchases of wind power that it claims for CO2e reductions credit.
Short of planting an estimated 93 million new trees, the entire state’s greenhouse gas emissions targets for future years now need to be re-adjusted. This will affect every business, vehicle, farm, and person in the state, a multi-billion-dollar liability for Sempra. True compensation is impossible, as we all need to be doing all we can to reduce greenhouse gases anyway; there is no “extra” left to do. Nevertheless, Sempra should be taken over by the government, or have its profits garnished, each and every year until they have reimbursed the people of California (and the world) for the climate costs of their accident.
They made a deal with the devil. They poked holes in the earth and they ignored critical safety measures in the interest of saving a few bucks. They lost. In another sense, however, all of us who are their customers (of any mined product, be it oil for our cars or copper for our iPhones) have made that same deal. We are the Bolivian miner living off the benefits of the devil’s subterranean jewels, hoping to live the good life that El Tio offers us.