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Yes, Living Near Methane’s Invisible Threat is More Dangerous

PORTER RANCH (PRC.News) – Fugitive methane emissions escaping from natural gas facilities are more dangerous, even at low levels, and are associated with an increased health risk to those living one mile or less from the source studies show.

So, what is methane, when is it a fugitive, and how is living nearby low levels of emissions more dangerous?

Methane: What is it?

Methane is a colorless and odorless gas that is naturally occurring and produced by the anaerobic bacterial decomposition of vegetable matter underwater, such as marshes and wetlands. This decay or digestion of organic material results in methane, which makes up 50 to 90 percent of natural gas. Methane can also found in underground deposits.

The chemical formula for methane is CH4, meaning it has one atom of carbon and four atoms of hydrogen. It is also lighter than air and when methane burns it forms carbon dioxide and water vapor at lower levels than both oil and coal.

Methane: Potent Greenhouse Gas

Unburned methane, however, when released into the atmosphere is a much more potent greenhouse gas. The warming potential of unburned methane is 84 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.  

The estimated release of unburned methane from distribution systems, such as underground natural gas pipelines, metering and regulating facilities, and customer meters, range from approximately 393 to 854 gigagrams per year or about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of methane distributed nationwide. This is down from 1329 gigagrams based on emission measurements taken during a national study from the early 1990s.  

Major sources of gas leaks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Gas STAR Partners Program, are from valves (26%), connectors (24.4%), compressor seals (23.4%), and open-ended lines (11.1%).

These emission measurements often referred to as fugitive methane emissions, are equivalent to the greenhouse gas emission from about seven millions vehicles annually, according to the Washington State University study.

Methane: Toxic Chemicals

Hydrogen sulfide, toluene, xylene, benzene and formaldehyde are toxic chemical released alongside fugitive methane emissions during oil and gas production. The release of these toxic chemicals is what makes even low-level exposure more dangerous.

“People exposed to toxic air pollutants like these can have an increased chance of getting cancer or experiencing other serious health impacts…”

“People exposed to toxic air pollutants like these can have an increased chance of getting cancer or experiencing other serious health impacts, including damage to the immune system, and neurological, reproductive, developmental, respiratory and other health problems,” the Environmental Defense Fund reported.

California Oil and Gas Production  

There are approximately 600,000 barrels of oil produced each day by 450 operators and service companies with 80,000 active oil and gas wells. Much of the operators produce oil and gas from coastal areas such as the Los Angeles Basin, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Santa Maria.

Los Angeles County alone has six-thousand of the state’s oil and gas wells, and hundreds are located within the city.

Increased Health Risks

Even though there are successful efforts underway in California to block the federal government’s policies set on rolling back environmental protections, current state and federal policies still don’t account for the long-term health effects from the exposure to fugitive methane emission, risks of episodic spikes in contaminant levels, and increased risk to especially sensitive populations such as pregnant women, young children, those with weakened immune systems and the elderly.

“There has been inadequate attention to human health impacts,” according to BioMed Environmental Health (2014), Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study.

“Air quality near oil and gas operations are an under-explored human health concern…”

The study found that levels of volatile chemicals exceeded federal guidelines under several operational circumstances.

Toxic chemicals benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds found to exceed health-based risk levels during the multi-state and multi-facility investigation where more than 400 measurements were obtained.

The WSU study further concluded that potentially “dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures” which are known human carcinogens and increase caner risk levels are commonly present near oils and gas production sites.

Additionally, a new Natural Resource Defense Council report, Drilling in California; Who’s at risk?, supports that there are health risk dangers and again underscored that living near production sites are linked to respiratory and neurological issues, cardiovascular damage, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and premature mortality.

Living One Mile or Less from Methane Source

California alone has more than 5.4 million people or 13 percent of the state’s population living within one mile or less of at least one or more oil and gas wells.

SoCalGas Sat Radius Ring - Edited
Image is of a map for Porter Ranch with a shaded circle indicating a one mile radius. Top image includes two additional circles indicating a 1.5 and 2 mile radius.

Porter Ranch is one such community with residents living within one mile of the Aliso Canyon oil and gas well. The upscale suburban community is home to approximately 16,426 residents, and many homes, schools and business are located one mile or less from the Southern California Gas Company, or SoCalGas, storage facility, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy Utility.

According to SoCalGas, the storage facility’s methane emission rate in 2015 was .012 percent, the lowest emissions found at the national level, despite being the largest natural gas distribution utility in the nation with over 100,000 miles of pipeline, spanning 20,000 square miles, and serving 21 million customers.

Fugitive methane emissions, depending on the facility type, may come from different points in the process such as transport lines, compressor stations, storage facilities, delivery pipelines and even under city streets. According to a study by the Natural Academy of Sciences (2015) Methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure and use in the urban region of Boston, Massachusetts, areas that consume gas “may… represent areas of significant resource loss.”

Based on a report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility (2017) TOO DIRTY, TOO DANGEROUS; Why Health Professionals Reject Natural Gas, a statistical association was found between well density and increased rates of hospitalization for cardiac, neurological, urological, cancer-related and skin problems. Additional studies cited in the report further determined that a statistical association was found between the patient’s proximity to natural gas fracking operations and progressively worsening asthma symptoms, between well density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of mothers’ residences, and the prevalence of congenital heart defects, and between expectant mothers living in the most active fracking area, and an increased risk of premature death.  

Protecting People

Despite the state’s latest action to block the federal government’s oil drilling expansion policies off of the California coastline, its vocal plans to be the first state to launch a satellite to monitor the state’s environment, and the recent $119.5 million settlement between SoCalGas and the State of California with several other entities, all of these scientific findings underscore the state’s needs to do more to fully evaluate the health risks to those living near an oil and gas facility and how best to protect them from those serious potential health risks.

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