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Earth Technology

Giant Methane Leak in California Won't Be Capped For Months 292

Motherboard takes a look at the ongoing leak from a deep well in Southern California, and the engineering challenges that mean it won't be stopped for a while. From Motherboard's report: An enormous amount of harmful methane gas is currently erupting from an energy facility in Aliso Canyon, California, at a startling rate of 110,000 pounds per hour. The gas, which carries with it the stench of rotting eggs, has led to the evacuation 1,700 homes so far. Many residents have already filed lawsuits against the company that owns the facility, the Southern California Gas Company. ... Part of the problem in stopping the leak lies in the base of the well, which sits 8,000 feet underground. Pumping fluids down into the will, usually the normal recourse, just isn't working, said [copmany spokesperson Anne] Silva. Workers have been "unable to establish a stable enough column of fluid to keep the force of gas coming up from the reservoir." The company is now constructing a relief well that will connect to the leaking well, and hopefully provide a way to reduce pressure so the leak can be plugged. As the article notes, methane is an especially noxious gas in a figurative as well as literal sense; while it spends less time in the atmosphere than does CO2, it is more effective at trapping heat.
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Giant Methane Leak in California Won't Be Capped For Months

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  • Rotting eggs? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Deadstick ( 535032 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:27PM (#51193143)

    That would be hydrogen sulfide. Methane doesn't smell like anything. It's odorless; in fact your gas company puts a stinky compound into it so you'll know when there's a leak.

    • I assumed that doped CH4 was being released, but if it is from a well, it doesn't make sense that it would be doped. Probably a good thing it smells though.

      • Re:Rotting eggs? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Deadstick ( 535032 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:52PM (#51193287)

        The dopant in city gas isn't H2S; it's usually methyl mercaptan. My HS Chem teacher said it's considered the worst smelling substance known, and distinctly (distinkly?) different from H2S (which could masquerade as flatulence).

        • "My HS Chem teacher said it's considered the worst smelling substance known"

          Yeah.... not even close. Look up thioacetone. :-)

          • Mike Rowe has a thing or two to say on smells.

          • It's on my mad science to-do list already:
            - Achieve first magnetic shrinking of a manhole cover, powered by a lightning strike.
            - Build a fusion reactor. Just a fusor.
            - Manufacture a thioacetone stink bomb.
            - Build a laser lawnmower.

            Current project:
            - Power a small LED above the handle on my back gate using energy harvested from radio transmissions.

        • Yes, the two are different. H2S has a slightly sweet aroma. Methanethiol (aka methyl mercaptan), another sulphur compound, has a more sour smell (it occurs in urine after asparagus). Both are toxic in high enough concentrations.

        • Re:Rotting eggs? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @12:41PM (#51195759)

          and distinctly (distinkly?) different from H2S (which could masquerade as flatulence).

          Very different from H2S. H2S is highly toxic and tricks your brain into thinking that you don't need to breath. It has some even better bonus features. At high concentrations (50ppm) it paradises your sense of smell so if you step into a H2S cloud you can get an instant whiff and then think you're back in the clear even though you're at great risk of death.

          Methyl Mercaptan doesn't paralyse your sense of smell, but it is also far more toxic. However stench (as it is called in the industry) is detectable in concentrations of 1ppb so you need only a tiny tiny fraction of the stuff to dose your consumer gas, and at that concentration it's quite safe for everyone except for the people working at sites which use it ... and their office workers ... and their families. Had a funny story from a mechanic who drew the short straw to overhaul a stench pump at our work. He walked into the office a day after still smelling and complaining that despite having 3 showers he was still sleeping on the couch and the dog is in his bed with the wife. We all would have laughed but we were holding our breath so we didn't need to smell him.

      • Re:Rotting eggs? (Score:5, Informative)

        by silas_moeckel ( 234313 ) <silas@@@dsminc-corp...com> on Monday December 28, 2015 @12:10AM (#51193343) Homepage

        It's a storage well so it's processed NG with it's standard marking impurity already added.

    • Re:Rotting eggs? (Score:5, Informative)

      by pepsikid ( 2226416 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @12:05AM (#51193325)

      You misunderstand. This is not a production well, it is a storage well. This is natural gas which has already been pumped topside, treated with scent, and has been forced back underground into an expired oil well. It's a super-cheap way to store fuel, but in the minds of those who are not legally immunized from disasters like this one, extremely risky. When storage wells like this crack open, there's almost nothing that can be done, and no ability to do anything quickly in any case.

      • by ShaunC ( 203807 )

        When storage wells like this crack open, there's almost nothing that can be done, and no ability to do anything quickly in any case.

        Surely someone nearby owns a quadcopter and a road flare...

      • Storage Well (Score:3, Interesting)

        by NReitzel ( 77941 )

        So this is a storage well for natural gas, right.

        Is that anything like the proposed storage wells for captured carbon dioxide? Sequestering billions of tons of carbon dioxide in undrerground in deep wells so it doesn't get into the atmosphere and cause trouble?

        Methane is lighter than air and disperses quickly -- in fact it goes to the upper atmosphere where it causes the problems that it causes. So this light gas which isn't particularly toxic hangs around long enough for it's impurities to force the evac

        • "Now what would happen if a CO2 storage facility would have a similar blowout, of a gas that is very heavy and creeps along the ground and kills people in houses (and livestock) instead of just stinking them out?"

          Lake Nyos.

        • Can't tell if intentionally trolling or just slightly misinformed. When people talk about carbon sequestration, no one is considering what you just wrote. There are several different methods of carbon sequestration. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          but they involve turning CO2 into solid form, e.g. mineral carbonates (think calcium carbonate, i.e. antacid), that are buried.

          • Nature has already done this to almost all of the CO2 that used to be in the atmosphere... It's called "limestone."

  • WTF timmay (Score:5, Funny)

    by Lunix Nutcase ( 1092239 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:28PM (#51193149)

    Pumping fluids down into the will, usually the normal recourse, just isn't working, said [copmany spokesperson Anne] Silva.

    Great editing as always, timmay.

  • I believe Timothy is showing signs of hypoxia. Better evacuate him immediately.

    (Typos not present in source article. Yes, I checked. Clicking through and copying text is one of my apparently-rare mutant powers.)

  • Obligatory (Score:3, Funny)

    by SeaFox ( 739806 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:29PM (#51193163)

    Well it sounds like this really stinks for those residents.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:34PM (#51193187)

    If it's really that bad, strap a flare to a drone and fly it into the methane exhaust.

    Then maybe someone will take notice and actually do something about it, rather then this bullshit "oh well, ho hum, we'll drill another well as soon as we can" business-as-usual attitude. I'm guessing the facility is fully operational and pulling in profits for SCGC, despite the insane environmental harm it's currently causing? What incentive do they actually have to fix it right now? They haven't even confirmed if the secondary well will actually do anything.

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Sunday December 27, 2015 @11:53PM (#51193295) Homepage Journal

    Burn it. It's far better to burn it than let it escape as methane.

  • Golden Opportunity! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Baldrson ( 78598 ) * on Monday December 28, 2015 @12:26AM (#51193383) Homepage Journal

    Look at the prevailing atmospheric vorticity of the area, place a bunch of counter-vorticity-inducing stators around the biggest leak (just a few percent cant on them is sufficient) and light it up. The updraft will pull air in through the stators inducing continuous vorticity that will form a fire tornado [youtube.com] miles into the atmosphere, totally oxidizing the methane and anything else that might burn in the gas.

    Once the fuel supply is cut off, the vortex may be self-sustaining due to the temperature difference between the ground and the upper troposphere. This is known as an Atmospheric Vortex Engine [vortexengine.ca].

    To turn it off, you turn the stators straight in thereby removing the vorticity and the vortex structure dissipates into a normal updraft.

    • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @12:51AM (#51193477) Journal

      Look at the prevailing atmospheric vorticity of the area, place a bunch of counter-vorticity-inducing stators around the biggest leak (just a few percent cant on them is sufficient) and light it up. The updraft will pull air in through the stators inducing continuous vorticity that will form a fire tornado [youtube.com] miles into the atmosphere, totally oxidizing the methane and anything else that might burn in the gas.

      I'll agree to your plan, but only if we make Dennis Arriola, the CEO of SoCal Gas light it with a Bic lighter while wearing a suit made from styrofoam peanuts soaked in gasoline.

      • Bad idea. At least you should give him a reliable lighter. Or a flare, just to make sure.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Sort of makes sense, but isn't L.A. infamous for the temperature inversions that hold in the smog? I suppose there must be days with decent wind however.
    • by pz ( 113803 )

      Christ, will you please contact those idiots in California and convince them to use your plan? This is probably the smartest, most informed thing I've read on Slashdot all year.

      Moreover, it reinforces the observation that when something REALLY insightful (not merely marked as such) is posted, chances are very high that it was from someone with a low ID. Wisdom comes with age, as they say.

  • more to it (Score:5, Informative)

    by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @01:01AM (#51193499)

    This article is pretty light on details. I know some of the residents in that area, and these are things some retired engineers have passed on to me from community meetings SCGC has had with them.

    This is an old (early 20th century) oil field with over 80 wells. If you've never driven around LA, you may not know that there are still operational oil fields inside the city, but think of the La Brea tar pits, and it makes sense.

    All of the wells in this field were designed to pump out oil. The pipes used in the wells are larger inner diameter than typically used with methane and have thinner and more porous wall material than typically used with methane. The pipes used are perfectly fine for oil, but would not be approved for a new methane well.

    SCGC uses this underground cavern emptied of oil as storage for methane for Los Angeles in lieu of constructed tanks. They can and do pump methane in and out, it's all processed and comes from somewhere else.

    What they did not do is verify that this old oil field will actually hold methane before they started using it. This leak looks like the methane is going through the porous concrete pipe that makes up the well and through the surrounding rock to the surface. This is why they can't seal the leak by clogging the pipe. It seems unlikely that anything short of capping all of the wells at the bottom or pumping out the methane will stop the leaking for good. They're halfway through drilling for one well, and don't intend to start on others until they show signs of leaking. All of their sensors are at ground level, so they will have no advance notice of an imminent leak.

    The local schools have been closed due to air quality issues, and a few thousand people have been temporarily moved at SCGC's expense. This leak accounts for 25% of the total expected statewide carbon emissions.

    • I bet those executives who decided to take on the risk of using this well for methane storage still got their bonuses, though.
  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @01:24AM (#51193555)
    It's a disasterous waste of a resource and many people have had to be evacuated, possibly for months. Why isn't there a serious response on the federal level instead of expecting the company to do whatever they can with their own resources? A spill in the gulf was dealt with on such a level.
    • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @01:55AM (#51193647) Homepage Journal

      Why isn't there a serious response on the federal level instead of expecting the company to do whatever they can with their own resources? A spill in the gulf was dealt with on such a level.

      Actually, the spill in the gulf was mostly dealt with on a company level, with the feds breathing down their neck going 'fix it now!' That involved subcontracting, which is the same sort of deal we're seeing here.

      For that matter, the gulf spill involved the same sort of response - they had to drill a relief well to take pressure off the original in order to fix a leak.

      Which brings up the question: How do you propose that the feds increase the speed of drilling the relief well? Think of it like drilling into a safe. It's going to take a while, and having a dozen guys 'assisting' isn't going to make it go any faster.

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        I suggest you read your last paragraph again and then consider what the article is telling us even if you know nothing at all about this sort of thing other than that. Only a few moments thought will make you wonder why you wrote something as stupid as that. I do not think you are stupid, just that you are appearing so by writing in haste, maybe after a few drinks.
    • Yeah, maybe the EPA could come in and clean it up like they did in Colorado and Utah.

    • Why isn't there a serious response on the federal level instead of expecting the company to do whatever they can with their own resources? A spill in the gulf was dealt with on such a level.

      If you're looking for relief from FEMA, you are looking in the wrong place. We just had a fire here in NoCal called the Valley Fire. First the ARC showed up and mismanaged the refugee camps to the point that aid supplies were just lying around. They not only didn't put on enough people to handle the problem, but they actively chased away any volunteer who was not a member of the ARC and refused to let them help. This was followed up by FEMA making people apply for aid on specific dates, then telling even pe

  • At the mind-boggling 110,000 pph (interesting choice of units for measuring a quantity of gas, btw) I don't know if this will be the atmospheric version of the Deep Water Horizon... There would probably be less damage overall if you'd just bought it straight from Gazprom... Sad :(
    • Re:Well done... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @02:06AM (#51193683) Homepage Journal

      Assuming it's pure methane, that would be ~23k BTU/lb [energy.gov], or about 2.5B BTU/hour.

      At around $1.80 per Million BTU [eia.gov], that's about $4,500 worth of gas leaking out per hour. About $3.2M/month.

      Not good, by any means, but I think dollars puts it into better scale.

    • by crbowman ( 7970 )

      Not really pounds per hours seems reasonable. You want to measure a quantity of gas escaping per unit of time not a volume (which would depend on temp an pressure). Stating it in moles or some other unit not familiar to lay people to whom you're trying to communicate would be foolish.

    • I agree with the units issue. The American pre-distribution NG sectors work in standard cubic feet (where standard is usually but not always 15C and 1 atm). Sometimes they work in standard liters. In Europe they frequently work in normal cubic meters.

      If I were reporting this, I would give units of cfh and btu/hr. Btu is what a person is actually paying for.

  • by supernova87a ( 532540 ) <kepler1.hotmail@com> on Monday December 28, 2015 @02:56AM (#51193825)
    Maybe this is a dumb question, but why in the world were they stockpiling that much gas to begin with?
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      They are probably waiting for the price to go up. There are wells all over the Midwest that have been prepped for drilling but not drilled, or drilled but not fracked, or fracked but are being held idle, because the economics of their existence was calculated on $80+/barrel oil. The companies are letting them sit hoping the price goes up so they can make more. It's easy to project how long this is worth doing given a certain amount of volatility in the price and the fact that demand will always be there, in
    • The same reason all gas companies use large storage vessels of some sort or another:

      Demand is never constant, supply can be highly variable and you need to maintain delivery pressure within a fairly tight window regardless.

      There's usually 3-6 months' supply of gas in the EU distribution networks at any one time, which is handy when russia cuts off the flow into western europe during a dispute with Ukraine, etc. On the other side of the continent, LNG ships plugged into the distribution system result in high

  • seems like the movie 'the arrival', aliens are warming up the planet so they can take over... LOL...
  • Methane is natural gas. In this country it's piped to homes for cooking and heating. Why can't they do that in California?

    • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

      We do. I live in suburban Los Angeles county, and our heating and cooking is all done by natural gas (methane). That's why the Southern California Gas Company exists.

  • by kwoff ( 516741 ) on Monday December 28, 2015 @07:54AM (#51194501)
    By my calculations, this well is about 0.3% of the world's cows methane output (according to the webs, 265 pounds per year per cow; and there are over a billion cows), or the equivalent of about 3.67 million cows. (Note: I consume meat/dairy products. Just trying to put it into perspective.)
  • ... 110,000 pounds per hour... 8,000 feet ...

    We are an international audience. Many of us are engineers. Probably the majority of us are not used to thinking in the American dialect of Imperial Measures. Is it not time that we show a bit of curtesy to people and start using metric? I mean, it is not even as if anybody actually has much of an intuition of how much "110,000 pounds" is, other than "it's a lot". Metric tons we can compare to things we know - a lorry, a cubic meter of water (there was the metric again) etc. 110 kpounds? Probably about 500

    • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

      500 metric tons is almost exactly right for 110,000 pounds. Sorry for not having much sympathy, I have to do these conversions in my head all over the place (in the reverse direction, I don't natively "think metric" but I also don't expect anyone else to translate for me) and pounds-to-kilograms is one of the easiest, along with yards-to-meters and miles-to-kilometers. This is not because I am an engineer, the only thing I engineer is audio and our decibels are the same as yours.

    • by clovis ( 4684 )

      110,000 pounds is equivalent to the weight of 460 Homer Simpsons.

      http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_5koC... [blogspot.com]

      So you are correct: "it's a lot".

  • I hope this event leads to a change of the default assumption that a natural underground reservoir that held liquid hydrocarbons is automatically qualified to hold gaseous hydrocarbons. It should be necessary to test such reservoirs before pumping gas into them -- say, with air tagged with extra argon or something. If it escapes, no harm is done. It is just being done to see if the damn thing leaks.

    • "a natural underground reservoir that held liquid hydrocarbons"

      Almost all such reservoirs also held gas and in old fields it was flared or simply vented long ago. The point made by another poster is that the issue isn't the reservoir itself, but the fact that much of the pipework feeding in/out of it is not gas-tight.

      Argon's not going to help much for testing. Methane has much smaller molecules and will leak in a lot of places that argon won't (not to mention that there isn't that much in the way of noble g

      • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

        I chose argon because it is the one noble gas that is fairly plentiful, 23 times the abundance of carbon dioxide. If argon is too big, that's good reason not to use it, but it's certainly not hard to find. Every time I've bought wine directly from a winery and they bottled it on the spot, they first filled the bottle with argon to clear any oxygen out. Nitrogen would obviously be safe, but it would be a big ask to detect excess nitrogen when the air is itself 80% nitrogen. I was just trying to think of a ga

  • In the Leptov sea, substantially more methane is pouring out with no attempts being made to mitigate it.

  • Slide a strong explosive down that well and blow it up so that the shaft collapses. No more leaks!
  • What makes the problem complex is that they are trying to stop the leak while keeping the well. It is a much simpler problem to stop the leak if one is willing to lose the well in the process.

  • i would say call The HellFighter but i don't know the country code for the correct section of the HereAfter.

    this might be a case of try to suck the well dry and or just LIGHT IT UP.

    AWG "fans" must be having generalized tonic-clonic seizures left right and center

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