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Reuters/Gus Ruelas
Fed up.
UNPLUGGED

A slow-motion disaster is unfolding in Los Angeles as a huge, two-month gas leak remains unsealed

By Ana Campoy

Utility engineers have finally located the source of a natural-gas leak in northwestern Los Angeles that has been spewing greenhouse gases into the air for two months now, but it will still be weeks before they can plug the massive leak. The accident is drawing comparisons to the BP oil spill in the Gulf Mexico five years ago, which similarly took months to contain.

Methane has been gushing out of a well near the upscale neighborhood of Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley since at least Oct. 23, when Southern California Gas Co., or SoCalGas, detected the leak at its Aliso Canyon facility.

Although methane dissipates more quickly than carbon dioxide, it’s many times more potent in terms of its power to warm the atmosphere. The escaping gas also contains chemicals that smell like rotten eggs, which are added to detect leaks but make people feel sick. Los Angeles County health authorities say they’ve received “a substantial number of reports” from area residents complaining of headaches, nausea, and other ills.  More than 2,000 families have been relocated away from the fumes.

SoCalGas, a unit of Sempra Energy, has been trying to stop the leak for weeks, so far with no success. That’s because the well, which is connected to an underground natural-gas storage facility, is more than 8,000 feet deep. So far, the company has only drilled 3,800 feet deep. On Dec. 27, it found the leaking well using special magnetic tools. Now it has to drill down further and install a relief well to reroute the gas, a process that could last until late March, the company said.

The slow-motion disaster is reminiscent of BP’s efforts to seal a ruptured well that toppled the company’s enormous Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killed 11 workers in 2010. It took the company many attempts over nearly three months to control the oil gusher as the public helplessly watched footage of a dark plume spreading through the Gulf of Mexico.

Erin Brockovich, the consumer advocate played by Julia Roberts in the movie with the same name, has called the Aliso Canyon leak the worst environmental catastrophe since the BP oil spill.

It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison in terms of pollution, Tim O’Connor, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s California oil and gas program, tells Quartz. But the well failure in LA is “a very big orange,” he adds. His organization estimates that the released methane is having the same greenhouse-gas effect as the emissions from 7 million cars. For perspective, there are around  6.2 million registered cars (pdf) in Los Angeles County.

But like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Aliso Canyon leak underscores how current regulations and oversight are not enough,  says O’Connor. Aliso Canyon is one of dozens of storage facilities around the country, and part of an aging network of processing plants, pipelines, and other infrastructure that is getting more use as natural gas becomes a more popular fuel.

“This type of event could happen at any one of these other sites,” O’Connor said.