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Why Engineers Can’t Stop Los Angeles' Enormous Methane Leak (laweekly.com)
199 points by timr on Dec 29, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments

On the topic of what went wrong I think this LA weekly[3] article is a much better source. The main problem why the well can't be shut down is that the security valve was removed about 40 years ago: "He pointed out that the valve was old at that time and leaking. It also was not easy to find a new part, so the company opted not to replace it.". Certainly a bad decision and it should be checked if regulations need to be changed to avoid similar problems in the future.

EDIT: The old version had used the wrong conversion factors, now corrected

The central number is the exhaust mass of 110,000 pounds per hour. So how much is this really? This is about 50 metric tons of methane per hour. To be able to compare it with other greenhouse emissions we can calculate the CO2 equivalent by multiplying with 0.01133[1] giving the rate of: 1247 metric tons CO2e per hour.

Using the EPA Online tool[2] we can relate this to the toal emissions in Calfornia or the US. The total emission of methan measured in CO2e for California in 2014 was: 9,546,270 metric tons CO2e. Converted to a rate per hour this gives: 1089 metric tons CO2e per hour.

So while the well is leaking it is releasing 114% of the normal methane emissions of California.

Compared to all greenhouse gas emissions the well is causing an increase of 10% in california and 0.3%at the US national level compared to the emissions from large facilities.

[1] http://www3.epa.gov/gasstar/tools/calculations.html

[2] http://ghgdata.epa.gov/ghgp/main.do

[3] http://www.laweekly.com/news/what-went-wrong-at-porter-ranch...

> we can calculate the CO2 equivalent by multiplying with 3.6

3.6x is how much CO2 is produced by burning methane (i.e. converting CH4 + 2 O2 => CO2 + 2 H2O).

Methane released into the atmosphere is 25x more potent as a greenhouse gas compared to CO2. See Global Warming Potential of methane in your [1] link.

So 50 metric tons of methane per hour is equivalent to to 1,250 tons of CO2e.

There's probably a really obvious answer to this really stupid question, but why don't they light the leak on fire until they stop it?

From what I understand, the gas is not flowing out of a pipe at ground level; the leak is deep underground and it is diffusing into rock and coming up over a wide area. It's not clear that combustion could be sustained in that configuration. I have as much oil/gas industry experience as rube goldberg, but I suppose if they put a huge upside-down funnel over the area maybe they could collect it and light the top, but I have no idea whether the radius of that funnel would have to be 10m or 10km.

I feel a good solution would be to implement a carbon tax, and an unburnt methane tax at the greenhouse equivalent, and start charging the company the estimated leak. I imagine their engineers would become more motivated.

This video shows the gas coming right out of the pipe:


http://www.laweekly.com/news/what-went-wrong-at-porter-ranch... has a very clear diagram of what's happening. The inner casing of the well sprang a leak. The gas is blowing all the way back down the outer casing of the well, then exiting adjacent to the casing. So, while the leak is concentrated to an area directly adjacent to the well, it's not a matter of simply capping the pipe.

If you argue that the motivation of the engineers is at all an issue, I invite you to present yourself on the south field at dawn. Bring your second.

perhaps more acurately, it would motivate the budget holders... engineers work with the resources their company allocates. a large tax/fine would certainly help incentivise the right kind of response. although, the fine should be large enough to have prompted the correct behaviour in 1979!

That's how the Door to Hell[1] was made.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Door_to_Hell

I corrected the analysis, thanks for the clue, this paints a completely different picture. I corrected the analysis

But the atmospheric residence time of methane is short - a decade or something. Nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of things, once the leak is plugged.

The factor of 25 accounts for this - over a 100-year timespan, methane is 25x worse than the equivalent weight of CO2.

Over a shorter 20-year timespan, it is 86x worse.


You're right, the LA Weekly article is superior. Its author has been reporting around LA for a long time.

Porter Ranch is an interesting place for this to happen. It is a cluster of gated communities with $1M+ homes. People generally move there to be left alone, and watch their property values increase -- this gas leak is deflating both of those dreams.

Sounds like a great time to buy one of these homes.

The figure used for converting metric tons CH4 to metric tons CO2e seems quite low, and I'm not sure what exactly it means in the context of the chart you cite. Indeed, if you plug "110,000" into the calculator [1] references you get 1,247 metric tons CO2e as a result.

That calculator uses a figure of 22.7 for conversion from metric tons CH4 to metric tons CO2e. Many other sources use the number 25.

25 is the correct number.

22.7 is used to convert short tons CH4 to metric tons CO2e. (A "short ton" is what we call a "ton" in the US)

Right. I still wasn't looking closely enough.

I corrected my calculation (using the correct 25 factor for metric tons). Thanks for the hint!

Ok, we changed the URL from http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-we-cant-stop-the-enormo... to the more substantive LA Weekly article. Thanks.

I grew up in Southern California and the tone of the LA Weekly Article reflects the reputation of The Gas Company as we knew it, conservative, safety oriented, safe.

I guess a culture built around nothing going wrong doesn't always respond well when something does.

Another perspective, this accounts for 0.17 % of US total GHG emissions (for all sources excluding land use change and forestry; source: World Resources Institute, for 2010). One might argue that means it's "small" or insignificant, but I'm going to argue that the lesson should be how staggeringly large our emissions are. Change needed, and soon!

Thank you for the coherent and quantitative analysis. The original article is an example of the rampant & incoherent innumeracy that dominates reporting on quantitative issues.

To put this in perspective: the US emits 6,673 million metric tons of CO2e* each year [1]. That's 18.2 million per day.

EDIT - I also had some numbers wrong! I was using the total leakage as the daily leakage.

This leak is 110,000 lbs CH4/hr, 50 metric tons CH4/hour, 1200 metric tons CH4 per day, 30,000 metric tons per day of CO2e.

That's .16% of our nation-wide emissions. Or, about as much as a half-million people.

*(CO2-equivalent, abbreviated CO2e, is used to normalize emissions of different gases. They are weighted based on their Global Warming Potential (GWP), which is a measure of how effective they are as a greenhouse gas. CO2 has a GWP of 1; Methane has a GWP of 25.)

[1] http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryre...

A thing I find helpful in cases like these is to switch to using SI units:

    : user@debian:~; units
    2529 units, 72 prefixes, 56 nonlinear units

    You have: 6673 million tonnes per year
    You want: Mg/s
            * 211.45913
            / 0.0047290463
    You have: 110000 pounds per hour
    You want: kg/s
            * 13.859767
            / 0.072151286
For some stupid reason, every field invents their own idiotic and idiosyncratic collection of slightly incompatible units: millibars, Torr, kilograms per square centimeter, or psi instead of Pascals; pounds per hour, metric tons per day, or metric tons per year instead of kilograms per second; quadrillion Btu per year, kilowatt-hours per month, or horsepower instead of watts; and so on. It's totally counterproductive and I wish people would stop.

>every field invents their own idiotic and idiosyncratic collection of slightly incompatible units

Well at least chip tech is still measured in nanometers and not beard-seconds.

I think you are mixing the number up. I could not find a source that said anything close to the 1.7 million metric tons per day emitted by the leaking well you used for your calculation.

The leak is emitting 1247 metric tons of CO2e per hour that is 29928 metric tons of CO2e per day. So its 0.17% instead of 9% of nation-wide emissions.

I think I've corrected it, but we're still off from each other :) Can you take another look?

I'm not sure what you're using for US-wide methane and CO2e emissions figures.

Damn these numbers! :D

Regarding your correction. The percent value is now too low (.002%). I think you used the factor value of ~0.002 as percentage. So you probably meant 0.2% which would be close to my number.

Using your numbers

30000/18200000 = .00164835164835164835 = ~0.16% = ~0.2%

That was it - thanks!

This is a failure of both the So Cal Gas Company and government regulators. And it will be interesting to find out:

1. How much does So Cal Gas have to pay to the people of nearby Porter Ranch (who've evacuated their community).

2. How much does So Cal Gas raise rates on its millions of customers to pay for this (because their $1 billion insurance policy won't cover the damages and because insurance rates will go up for the next term)

3. Which So Cal Gas executives will be disciplined or fired, if any?

4. Perhaps most intriguingly, will anyone in any government regulatory post be disciplined or fired?

The San Bruno gas pipe explosion investigation found a very cosy relationship between the CPUC (the commission meant to regulate the gas industry (among others) and be a watchdog) and PG&E. The tiny city of San Bruno has been pushing to get the regulators punished, but no dice. The regulators were literally in the pockets of PG&E, consulting with PG&E over decisions and bending over backwards for PG&E.


My wife's good friend lives in Porter Ranch, and she says she is getting nothing but the runaround from So Cal Gas on relocating her. They are not complying with the 48 hour turnaround time that they settled for when recently sued by the City of Los Angeles.

Sadly, the government will go along with the rate increase; just as the PUC allowed PG&E to raise rates after razing San Bruno with a pipeline explosion.

I guess you're right.

Then, it's just a question of how much. And I suspect that question will be hard to answer.

They'll probably bury the actual number with some accounting slight of hand in customer bills.

Here's a little taste of how things have turned out since SCE and SDGE decided to give up fixing and maintaining San Onofre:


5. What's the punitive damage like if you have a safety valve and then don't replace it once its broken?

That seems willful to me.

Regulations did not require a safety valve on this well because it wasn't with 150 feet of a house (from the article).

--- quote ---

1. How much does So Cal Gas have to pay to the people of nearby Porter Ranch (who've evacuated their community).

2. How much does So Cal Gas raise rates on its millions of customers to pay for this (because their $1 billion insurance policy won't cover the damages and because insurance rates will go up for the next term)

3. Which So Cal Gas executives will be disciplined or fired, if any?

4. Perhaps most intriguingly, will anyone in any government regulatory post be disciplined or fired?

--- endquote ---

5. What is the political contribution history of So Cal Gas with respect to the current CA Governor, legislative leaders, CA Senators, and the (U.S.) Administration?

Because it creates a Door to Hell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Door_to_Hell

1) New tourist attraction.

2) From an environmental standpoint, isn't CO2 in the atmosphere better than methane?

Lighting it would be admitting defeat. I suspect pride is a factor here.

If we are going to be cynical about it, let's really be cynical and figure that they can best limit their losses by using a recovery well. If it was cheaper and feasible to light it, I think they'd do that over keeping pride.

It could start a fire in the nearby brush. With a little wind it could spread rapidly to thousands of nearby dwellings.

Exactly. I used to live near there, and the area is extremely dry and prone to wildfires, for example https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porter_Ranch_fire

Unlikely. This is leaking from a storage reservoir, not a field. Eventually the gas runs out.

> Eventually the gas runs out.

Well... careful with estimates on that. From the Door to Hell article:

> It was estimated that the gas would burn out within a few weeks, but it has instead continued to burn for more than four decades.

In this case its an actual reservoir, reasonable to assume they know exactly how much case is in there.

I thought you had to dig through a vein of adamantine for that?

It would keep things canon with the Los Angeles of the Blade Runner opening flyover sequence: http://www.audienceseverywhere.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/0...

Although that would be better for the environment, it would make it absolutely obvious to everyone how big of a problem this is. After the BP thing, that's something to be avoided at all costs.

What I really want to know is how they prevent it from getting lit accidentally. I would figure the smallest spark would make it happen.

I don't think that's true. Depending on the air/gas mix at the point of the proposed ignition it might require a very deliberate and difficult effort to light it.

Forget about lighting it, why not just blow up the well like they did in Kuwait after Saddam's forces lit up the oil wells while retreating?

An obvious solution, that I'm sure there is a reason can't be used, that article didn't even mention despite being titled "why engineers can't stop the leak."

Maybe another process is to really do blow up "the well" but all the uses of explosions I've heard about was to put out the fire (burning oil) by starving its oxygen. So, workers could then go in and cap the well.

Mainstream news completely failed on this one.

I guess it is not as "sexy" as the BP spill since it is not very visual and you can't transmit "stink".

They are too busy covering whatever nonsense Trump is spewing each week.

To really grasp the full impact of this leak, you need to watch the infrared video (since methane is invisible): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rnbcsm0VzQM&feature=youtu.be

It's been literally spewing out of the hillside for weeks.

So, where was all this gas in 2002 or so when CA was being held hostage by gas suppliers? I never heard of any reservoirs at the time.

Can't they just capture it and store it instead?

Without looking carefully at it, I suspect the only nearby storage with enough capacity to deal with it (if they could even capture it) is the thing that is leaking.

So why not capture it and burn it immediately in some safe way? (far enough from the plume to avoid ignition worries)

Even if they didn't manage to harness the energy for anything this would surely be better than letting the methane escape.

I don't know. That they aren't doing it at least suggests that it is not so easy.

Then wouldn't capturing it and feeding it back into the same reservoir solve the problem? At least temporarily?

If they were not extremely careful about removing all the oxygen, then pumping oxygen into the reservoir would eventually be very exciting once the oxygen percentage rises above a certain limit.

There is also a circular argument that compressing and pumping natgas takes a fair amount of energy. Of course you could burn the gas in a turbine. But then its simpler to just install 2 or 3 times the turbine capacity and just sell power to the grid. Also see above about explosions, no one is going to rent you a natgas turbine or rent you the money to buy one if the likely lifetime before the big explosion is only a week or two.

Also hooking piping up to the reservoir is roughly as difficult as digging the kill well they're already working on, so rather than stopping it in Feb they'd merely be partially recycling by next May or something. So what they're already doing to shut it down, will be done much faster.

You obviously know more than me, I was just commenting on the capturing idea needing a reservoir to place it after capture.

I was also thinking of just storing as much as possible in a series of large inflatable balloons. You'd have to keep some distance between them in case one decides to explode I guess.

Capture, compress, and truck it over to some other nat-gas burning facility. Really it seems like other options are being dismissed purely on cost - but the cost of extended legal complications after the fact will be huge.

You've stumbled into an interesting contemporary engineering problem, as an overall system combining all costs is it cheaper to compress natgas into CNG or liquify it into LNG? And the answer is "it depends".

In both cases you're probably going to have to burn about 10% to 20% onsite to generate the power to run the compressors.

This also explains why its financially viable to spend $1M/mile on gas pipelines instead of transporting it in tanks on the back of trucks.

In as few words as possible this is more or less why your house furnace probably runs on natgas, but probably not your car. As an overall system its more efficient to burn the vapor in your furnace connected by pipes and the liquid in your mobile car.

And that circulates back to my suggestion that if you have to install 20% of flow capacity in the form of generators to run liquifiers, from an overall system standpoint it makes more sense to scale up five times, get somewhat higher process efficiency, and just pump KWh of electricity into the grid rather than making a complicated plant.

Also capture is assumed to be simpler than catching butterflies. It won't be, it won't be cheap, and it won't be effective.

WRT economic costs shouldn't matter when talking about the environment, its unavoidable. Spending $100M on building and operating a temporary plant will as a factor of blowing $100M result in environmental damage likely far exceeding just dumping the fuel unburnt. The planet has suffered incredible damage in the past from "we have to do something", and probably always will in the future.

Well, if someone were to put together a spot compression or generation system, how many older storage sites / leaks sites exist such that it would be worth the apply the capital to design and assemble a number of units which could be leased on an emergency basis?

It seems like back east there are lot of fairly small fracking wells setup for spot generation. If that's a shorter design distance from what could be used then even better.

I agree about the environmental costs, but mostly phrased it the way I did because it's a lot easier to convince a company to release the funds if it's going to cost them one way or another... worse, as a side issue if government steps in with emergency funding to help citizens, it's an unfortunate encouragement of corporate strategy of 'privatize the profits and socialize the risks'.

"In both cases you're probably going to have to burn about 10% to 20% onsite to generate the power to run the compressors."

Isn't burning it in-place better environmentally than just venting it to the atmosphere?

All oil refineries and drilling operations have a flare system that burns off such gas - if not beneficial, why do that besides that it looks cool from a distance at night?

It's leaking out of cracks in the well into the rock structure. From what I've read it seems like trying to capture it would just force it out of the rocks in a different place.

Completely tangential, but: what's the deal with those people shots? I can't tell if it's my mind playing tricks but they look heavily photoshopped (the second one, with the couple on the street even looks like it was green-screened.)

Guessing the photos are composites. The background is HDR, but HDR looks horrible on people, so they were shot without HDR and layered in Photoshop. In the second shot you can clearly see how the shadows are at different angles.

It does look unnatural. I don't know whether it was actually shopped. Sometimes a strong flash is enough to get this effect.

There seems to be a common narrative in all of the recent (~5 years or so) environmental disasters in the US - subjectively, most of them seem to have been caused, at least in part, due to corporate negligence: either an antiquated safety component in disrepair, or a safety component completely omitted contrary to regulations. I'm not sure what the solution is, certainly dispatching an army of inspectors is not cost effective. Just something that stood out in my mind.

Why is the title of the post "Why Engineers Can’t Stop Los Angeles' Enormous Methane Leak"?

Title of the article is: "WHAT WENT WRONG AT PORTER RANCH?"

Smells like clickbait, and the claim doesn't seem to be supported by the source.

The article says "The gas company expects it to continue for up to another three months." Sounds like they can stop the leak by drilling a relief well.

As dang mentioned (search the comments), they redirected the link, and the original did in fact have that title: https://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-we-cant-stop-the-enorm...

Thanks. It was buried in a discussion about arithmetic. Dunno why he didn't change the title though, no big deal.

I wonder if they could dump huge amounts of liquid nitrogen on it - that would freeze the methane from the inside and might stop the leak.

would setting it on fire dispose of it?

Yah, it would, normally, in other States. This is called "flaring", but I imagine California has environmental 'protection' laws limiting or preventing these systems from being used. Most wells have emergency flare systems that burn excess gas if a formation surge occurs (faster than it can be captured).

Regardless, this situation is unique because the well is very old... and leaking in several places. I don't know of an existing system that can safely pump an Oxygen/Production gas mix to another location and flare it.

Hopefully the well casing isn't compromised or the whole town could explode (Hutchison, KS a few years back).

Actually, I'm trying to figure out if this particular disaster is a underground storage facility or if it's actually a production well. Details are scattered about and it's kind of hard to find information.

Yes, and probably dispose of most of the San Fernando Valley at the same time.

So, win-win then?

What's stopping that from accidentally happening right now?

why they have so much more gas that they have to store in old oil fields?

apparently HN doesn't stop dupes anymore


That doesn't count as a dupe because it didn't receive any discussion. Please see the FAQ.


this'll be fine I'm sure :0

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