For weeks now, a small community in California’s San Fernando Valley has been dealing with a very big environmental problem.

A ruptured natural gas well near the town of Porter Ranch has been spewing about 100,000 pounds of methane per hour. Methane, a greenhouse gas that traps many times more heat than carbon dioxide, can contain trace levels of toxins capable of contributing to long-term health problems. The utility in charge, Southern California Gas Company, has yet to figure out how to stop the leak. In the meantime, the company is paying to house more than 700 Porter Ranch families in hotels, and is considering relocation requests from 2,000 more. Multiple lawsuits are in the works.

Stanford experts discussed a range of impacts from the ongoing leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field.
 

“The leak is equivalent to about a quarter of all methane emissions in California from agriculture, landfills and industry combined. It's massive. One impact is on local air quality for the people in nearby neighborhoods.  We don't know if there are trace levels of benzene, sulfur compounds, or other gases in the air. People are being evacuated for this reason.”

Rob Jackson, Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Infrared video showing methane plume from SoCal Gas leak. Credit: Earthworks / aseptoff@earthworksaction.org

“Natural gas utilities need stronger incentives to control leaks. As it stands, the guaranteed profits that utilities earn discourage investments in their system aimed at spotting and repairing leaks. Utilities get paid a return based on their total costs. Too often, they treat leaky systems as just a cost of doing business. This is not just a problem for safety. It's also a critical piece of helping the U.S. achieve its climate objectives.”

Michael Wara, Associate Professor of Law and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment affiliate

“If left unchecked, the impacts of leaking natural gas wells grow over time and get more difficult to remedy. California needs contingency plans for all its underground storage sites. These should include ongoing monitoring, site-specific action plans for different types of leaks and access to needed equipment. The state should make sure that companies are prepared to act quickly on these plans.”

- Sally Benson, Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy and Professor of Energy Resources Engineering and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment affiliate

“Natural gas leakage is not only a safety and health issue. It also is a climate issue because stopping leaks is a relatively easy and cost-effective means to reduce emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. Stopping such leaks should be in everyone's interest, including utilities, which are losing marketable gas.”

Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law and Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

“While in some sense this leak might be seen as a ‘one-off’ event of temporary importance, studies of natural gas leaks suggest that uncommon, large leak events like this one can account for a significant fraction of overall gas leakage. Even large leaks can be hard to find if they occur away from populated areas. One important step forward for sustainability will be to design ways to quickly detect and fix these large leaks soon after they happen.”

Adam Brandt, Assistant Professor of Energy Resources Engineering and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment affiliate