POLITICS
02/11/2016 05:09 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2016

California's Massive Methane Leak Temporarily Stopped For First Time In Months

The leak has released more than 90,000 metric tons of methane already.

LOS ANGELES -- Southern California Gas Co. announced Thursday that it has temporarily controlled the flow of natural gas at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, which has been leaking for nearly four months.

“We have temporarily controlled the natural gas flow from the leaking well and begun the process of sealing the well and permanently stopping the leak,” said Jimmie Cho, SoCalGas' senior vice president of gas operations, in a statement.

Thousands of residents from the Porter Ranch community, an affluent neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles, have been relocated since October due to the leak. SoCalGas said Thursday that those residents have already been notified about the day’s progress.

In December, the gas company began drilling a relief well in an effort to stop the enormous volume of gas that has been spewing from a broken well since Oct. 23. On Thursday, drill crews intercepted the base of the broken well and began pumping in fluids to temporarily control the leak.

The well is not permanently sealed yet, but the company says that may happen in the coming days following a cement injection. No official timeline has been established for sealing off the well.

Here's a look at how much gas has already spewed from the broken well (story continues below):

Thousands of people have been forced to live out of hotels and temporary residences since the pungent gas began seeping into their homes, causing many to suffer headaches, body pains, nosebleeds and painful coughing fits. Many locals remain worried about the damage to the resale value of homes in the area, as well as the possibility that such a leak could happen again.

It’s a reasonable concern. Experts say smaller versions of the Aliso Canyon leak are happening all the time because California has no rules for well construction or gas storage fields, leaving it to gas companies to decide whether older equipment needs to be fixed or replaced.

“Stopping this leak is critical to ensure the safety of the Porter Ranch community, but this isn’t the end of the story,” Damon Nagami, director of the Southern California Ecosystems Project at the National Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “We must do everything we can to protect families in California and across the country -- as well as our climate -- from harmful gas leaks.”

Nagmi said that methane wells across the country must be better regulated so as to prevent future leaks like this one.

SoCalGas, which operates the Aliso Canyon storage facility, could have prevented the current disaster by replacing a safety valve that stopped working in 1979. However, California law only requires safety valves on wells within 100 feet of a road or park or within 300 feet of a home, and in this case SoCalGas opted not to replace the hard-to-find piece.

In general, gas companies are under little obligation to keep these wells maintained. But that is beginning to change. Just last month, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared of a state of emergency over the Aliso Canyon leak, California's Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources announced emergency regulations for all of the state’s natural gas storage facilities.

Those regulations, which went into effect earlier this month, are meant to address issues regarding inspections, testing and the “need for operators to create risk management plans,” the agency says.

Critics say the new regulations are both long overdue and profoundly inadequate. Prior to DOGGR’s new regulations, the code governing “gas storage projects” in California consisted of fewer than 90 words. The new rules specifically apply to “underground gas storage projects” and expand the regulations by about three and a half pages.

As the gas company gets closer to finally permanently sealing the well, the air will begin to clear in the Los Angeles communities hit the hardest by the blowout. But methane, the main component in the leaked gas, has effects on the atmosphere that don't simply vanish when a well ceases operation.

Methane is an especially strong greenhouse gas. Once it's released into the atmosphere, it carries over 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, and it retains that potency for the next two decades. It's not yet clear exactly how much damage the Aliso Canyon leak has caused, but it's impossible that it hasn't exacerbated global warming in some way.

While BP’s oil well failure in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 may be remembered as bigger economic catastrophes, scientists say this leak has been a greater contributor to climate change.

“The leak may be stopped, but huge questions remain about the risks from gas-storage wells across California,” Maya Golden-Krasner, an L.A.-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost in an emailed statement.

“State oil officials still aren’t taking strong action to protect people from these old, corroded wells, and we believe the Aliso Canyon facility is just too dangerous to stay open," Golden-Krasner went on. "The Brown administration’s hands-off approach to regulating gas storage has cost the people of Porter Ranch dearly, and it’s clear that regulators still don’t get how hazardous these operations can be.”

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