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Lessons from California gas disaster; Bring them Home to Western MA

Marty Nathan, MD: Lessons from California gas disaster

By MARTY NATHAN, MD

A year and a half ago I wrote about the gas leak at my house that caused the fire department to evacuate the neighborhood. While on vacation, mice chewed through the line connecting a propane tank to our backyard grill. Luckily, our smart 13-year-old neighbor who was caring for our backyard chickens in our absence smelled the gas and told her mom, who called the alarm.

And even more fortunately, the leak was small, no one lit a match and the crisis passed within an hour.

Not so lucky for the folks of Porter Ranch, California, an upscale suburb of Los Angeles. A little over two weeks ago the California Secretary of State joined his neighbors in leaving his home there in order to protect himself, his wife and three small children from the toxic effects of the methane leak from the nearby huge Aliso Canyon underground storage facility. Massive emissions of methane were pouring into the air from where it is stored under high pressure in an old well 3,000 feet underground. The methane (the major component of natural gas) was delivered by pipeline mostly from West Texas.

It created a plume a mile high and several miles long from Oct. 23, 2015, until it was “temporarily” plugged Friday. It continued for three and a half months because of the depth of the storage, the pressure and complexity of the storage system and, well, because neither Southern Cal Gas nor any other fossil fuel company has bothered to make a plan for such a disaster. Sound familiar?

It does to quite a few environmental experts. Famed lawyer Erin Brockovich has joined others in comparing it to the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil blowout and spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Boston University Prof. Nathan Phillips says, “This is a contamination of atmosphere rather than ocean waters. It is more of a respiratory version of (Deepwater Horizon).”

Aliso Canyon spewed over 90,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere. The mercaptan in it has made people sick, forcing the evacuation of over 2,000 people from the area and closing two local schools. Of course the gas is volatile, and devastating fires and explosions have been possible. Since our atmosphere has no boundaries, of course this is not just a local disaster. Methane is a greenhouse gas, 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. What was emitted is equal to eight million tons of carbon dioxide, a quarter of the greenhouse gas cuts that California’s ambitious global warming mitigation plan is set to eliminate.

It is a big hit to the climate, something to be mourned on behalf of the future of those living on our planet.

But let us learn the Aliso Canyon lesson here, in Massachusetts.

Natural gas, methane, is not a safe or appropriate “bridge fuel” to a future of renewable energy. Though burning the final product is less polluting than burning coal, the leaks all the way along the production and delivery system — the worst example being Aliso Canyon — wipe out any benefit that the “cleaner burning” bestows.

And leaks are everywhere. There will be planned releases at the compressor stations along the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline in western Massachusetts. In Boston, the Environmental Defense Fund earlier found a leak approximately every mile traversed by National Grid’s often 50-year-old pipes. Aliso Canyon calls us to do a few things:

  • Stop the gas leaks at wells, storage tanks and pipes. In Massachusetts the Natural Gas Leak law must be implemented throughout the state.
  • Prevent the building of any new natural gas infrastructure. Yes, I mean the Northeast Energy Direct and the West Roxbury Lateral Pipelines, which are needed not for Massachusetts consumers but instead for natural gas profit through export. Join the march “Taking Steps to a Renewable Future” from March 17 to 20 from Windsor to Northfield between proposed NED stations.
  • Use due diligence to conserve and make the transition to renewable energy. Call your legislators and ask them toensure the elimination of the cap on net metering of solar energy to support that transition from dangerous, climate-killing fossil fuels.

Marty Nathan, MD, lives in Northampton and is a physician at Baystate Brightwood and a member of Climate Action NOW.   This op-ed was published in the Hampshire daily Gazette Thursday, February 18, 2016