Porter Ranch Gas Disaster and the Poisonous Lies of the System

by Orpheus Reed | January 18, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Since October 23, 2015, massive amounts of natural gas have been spewing from a broken well at Southern California Gas Company’s (SOCAL) Aliso Canyon gas storage fields near the community of Porter Ranch near Los Angeles. The gas eruption can’t be seen by the human eye, but infrared cameras show it as a huge plume pouring into the sky. Timothy O’Connor of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) called Aliso Canyon “a mega-leak” and said “the plume is about 1,000 feet high and several miles long.”

People in Porter Ranch have had their lives turned upside down. Many have been sickened and thousands have been forced to relocate. The leak is also a massive climate disaster, as methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas that causes global warming. The crisis has built to the point that Governor Jerry Brown was forced to declare a state of emergency on January 6.

This disaster has the fingerprints of the entire system all over it. It shows again that this system is incapable of protecting human health and life and the environment, because it’s not set up and structured to do this but instead is based on private interests and control, profitability, and competition.

Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage facility in the western U.S. It is one of 14 fields in California alone, with hundreds of gas wells. At Aliso Canyon, gas coming from other places is piped in and collected in wells. Then it is injected thousands of feet underground beneath rock into reservoirs that once contained oil.

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SOCAL says that the gas leaking at Aliso is from a well called SS-25 that was drilled in 1953 and converted to a gas well in the 1970s. Now the steel tubing, or casing, is corroding and causing the well to rupture some 500 feet underground. SOCAL says it may take several more months to stop the flow by drilling a relief well to cut off the broken pipe from below the leak.

Outrageously, this leak could have been stopped very quickly. SOCAL admitted that in 1979, it had removed a broken safety valve that would have stopped the leak—and that they never replaced it because it wasn’t easy to find a new part, and they didn’t consider the SS-25 a “critical well” because it wasn’t within 300 feet of a home! None of this was stopped or even commented on by any official. And there are reportedly other methane leaks in the field and other missing or leaking safety valves.

Anneliese Anderle, a field engineer for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources, said of SOCAL’s Aliso project: “They have a beautiful facility. It’s gleaming. They have great roads and well-marked pipelines. Everything’s painted. But below the surface, it’s junk.”

There are hundreds more gas storage facilities like this in the U.S. This situation—of old, corroding pipes—is apparently a much more widespread problem than just Aliso Canyon or for that matter confined to California. To replace all this infrastructure would mean massive capital investment that would mean huge losses in profitability and competitiveness. So no political structures under capitalism are going to do that. Whatever regulations exist are paltry, and promises to “deal with the problem through new regulations” are not fundamentally possible given the deep necessities of the system. Beyond this, all this production and use of fossil fuels continues despite a screaming climate and environmental emergency.

Far from an aberration, the SOCAL disaster is just a concentration of a much larger problem. Research from the Environmental Defense Fund has shown that methane is leaked at every stage in the production and supply of oil and gas. And there are many other miles of aging, corroding pipelines. All of this is business as usual under this system, and it is only addressed when a major disaster breaks out. Promises are made about new regulations and changes in how things are done, and then everything goes back to normal.

The Impacts on People in Porter Ranch

Porter Ranch is a middle-class community with nice homes, schools, and parks, a place where people can supposedly live nice lives. But now they have had to deal with an onslaught of sickening gas that has made their lives a nightmare. Thousands can’t stay there now without suffering continual health problems. The scale and scope of the disaster and the danger has been covered up, as they’ve been lied to by not only SOCAL but the media and overall representatives of the system.

Initially, SOCAL didn’t even admit the spill existed, despite people being sickened. Then they claimed this leak was nothing more than an inconvenience, that natural gas immediately disperses in the air, and that there was no threat to public safety.

At least dozens of people have reported headaches, nosebleeds, nausea, breathing problems, vomiting, and other symptoms. People are preventing their children from playing outdoors. Some parents have had to take their babies to the emergency room with shortness of breath. People’s pets are vomiting. Sharon Mousavi-Dormani, who has been forced to leave Porter Ranch with her family, says of the impacts of the gas, “It’s like a fog in your brain—it feels like you’re having a stroke. Every time I go back I get sicker and sicker.” Parents report children having cold- and flu-like symptoms and increasing problems with asthma, and say they are deeply worried about what all the long-term impact will be. Three thousand families have been relocated, and there are more than 3,000 more who are still waiting to be relocated, despite being almost three months into this crisis.

With all this, SOCAL, public health officials, and most of the mainstream bourgeois media repeatedly tell people that methane itself is not toxic. But there is well-founded reason to doubt this. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in high concentrations methane gas can displace oxygen in your lungs and can lead to “suffocation and loss of consciousness... headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination.” Methane can inflame lung tissue. Some of these are the very symptoms people are reporting. Further, there is differing information on the long-term effects of methane poisoning, and it doesn’t seem very well studied. Methane gas is also highly flammable, meaning there is danger of explosion.

It has also come out that the brown residue some residents have found coating things in the neighborhood is likely from oil residues mixed in with the escaping gas. Inhaling hydrocarbons in oil is damaging to health, and hydrocarbons are also carcinogenic. And SOCAL understated the number of days and instances where the cancer-causing chemical benzene had been detected in the air at levels above the normal or background rate. The level of exposure Porter Ranch residents have had to benzene and hydrocarbons is not known, but this is something that should be urgently studied, along with studying and combatting impacts of methane. But none of this is being handled as a serious emergency by state health officials or anyone else associated with the system.

A Disaster for the Climate

Special Issue of Revolution on the Environmental Emergency

This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. In this issue we show:

  • the dimensions of the emergency...
  • the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
  • a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.

Read online....

Also available in brochure format (downloadable PDF)

The Porter Ranch eruption is a climate disaster. The main component of natural gas is methane. Over a 20-year time period, methane is 84 times more powerful in warming the planet than carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. Already, over 84,000 metric tons of methane have escaped through this huge leak. As of late December, according to the California Air Resources Board, 1.9 billion standard cubic feet of gas had spewed out—as much greenhouse pollution as produced by 330,000 cars in a whole year. This leak has doubled the amount of methane emissions from natural gas production in the state.

All this only adds more to the escalating climate emergency on the planet. It further exposes the false claims by the world’s powers that they are now moving to address this in the wake of the Paris climate agreement. This is a developing crisis that some have said is the largest environmental disaster in the U.S. since the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

There has been an increasing outcry from Porter Ranch residents and environmental groups and calls to shut down the SOCAL facility. To try to contain the crisis, on January 6, California Governor Jerry Brown finally declared a state of emergency. Brown said he was ordering the company to stop any further injection of gas into the underground storage site, calling for inspections of other gas facilities, and would make the company offset the climate impacts of the huge methane releases.

But every step in this whole situation reveals a system that is incapable of preventing or dealing with environmental disasters and protecting people’s health and lives, and deals with people’s concerns by lying to try to cover its tracks.

Brown himself was a big player at the Paris climate talks, where he and California were toasted for doing great things to decrease the state’s greenhouse emissions—at the same moment that the state was experiencing a big climate disaster that was being hushed up. California has announced plans to make big cuts in greenhouse emissions over the next decades, including by reducing its 2013 level of greenhouse emissions 7 to 8 percent by 2020. But the Aliso Canyon leak already cuts into that planned reduction by about a quarter, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Again and again we hear speeches from “liberal” representatives of this system promising that environmentally “clean” capitalism is just around the corner with the passage of a few more laws, the signing of a new agreement, the election of a new president. And again and again, the deeper, profit-driven workings of that very system generate new and even worse disasters, bringing more suffering to the people and bringing our planet closer to ecological catastrophe. Each time this happens, the whole system goes into gear to cover up or downplay the ways that people are being poisoned and the environment damaged, and lies to us that we have nothing to fear, until finally, when the damage can no longer be covered up and bursts into public view, we get feeble apologies… and a new round of promises.

The reality is that this system, the capitalist system, cannot protect the environment or the people.



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