Nathan Phillips Investigates “The Mother of All Gas Leaks”

in NEWS, SE Spotlight Faculty, SE Spotlight-Research

Many sickened, thousands made homeless in California

By Rich Barlow

Of all the thousands of natural gas leaks he’s tracked, Nathan Phillips (Earth & Environment, Systems Engineering) has never encountered a monster like this.

The College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment went to Los Angeles earlier this month at the invitation of his collaborator, Bob Ackley, to analyze a leak that has sickened many and forced the evacuation of thousands from their homes since erupting in October. The leak in the city’s tony Porter Ranch neighborhood is responsible for one-quarter of California’s daily emissions of the greenhouse gas methane and led Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency last month.

“This is the mother of all gas leaks,” says Phillips, who stalked the streets of the afflicted neighborhood with his team to measure how much gas people were being exposed to, and precisely where. Ackley is president of Gas Safety USA, a Massachusetts leak-monitoring firm, and has collaborated with Phillips in finding and measuring gas leaks in Boston and other cities.

Despite the illnesses (residents have complained of headaches, nosebleeds, sore throats, nausea, and dizziness), California health officials have said there are no long-term risks from the leak. Southern California Gas Company, the utility responsible for the leaking gas storage well, is subsidizing residents who have moved. Those electing to stay—many wearing surgical masks when they venture outside—have received air filters from the company.

BU Today asked Phillips about his investigation and the efforts to fix the leak.

BU Today: How did you go about this work?

Phillips: We brought respiratory gear as a precaution, because we really didn’t know what we were getting into. We didn’t even know if the public streets were going to be blocked off. It turns out all the public streets were open—and virtually empty of cars. Based on our readings of methane as we passed through the plume, and knowing that we were passing through for 5 to 10 minutes at a time periodically over a week, I decided to forego the respiratory equipment. I would not necessarily recommend that for others, especially for people who decided to stay in the neighborhood.

Can you share the results of your work?

The basic finding is what one might expect, but it was crucial to actually verify this with measurements. The plume wafts like smoke from a huge campfire, and the Porter Ranch neighborhood is analogous to a person standing next to the campfire. Periodically, you get blasted with the smoke; then the wind shifts, and you breathe clean air until the plume shifts back to you.

Did you get an idea of when and how the gas company will be able to fix the leak?

Like everyone else, we were watching the news releases from Southern California Gas and the state agencies. It’s a complicated fix because the leak is many hundreds of feet below the surface, and it can’t be easily capped at the surface. So the best way to “kill the well” is to drill a relief well from a lateral location a safe distance away to below the leak, intercept it, and plug it from below. This takes a long time—probably to the end of February or March. In the meantime, SoCal Gas proposed flaring the leak to consume the methane and stinky odorant—imagine that scene of a giant flame over LA, like a scene out of Blade Runner—but state agencies nixed the idea for fear of a potential catastrophic explosion. 

Could a leak this devastating happen here?

The magnitude of the Porter Ranch leak dwarfs anything we’ve seen in Boston. But every leak, no matter its size, is 100 percent gas at its origin, and even a small leak can build over time in a confined space, like a manhole or basement, to become an explosion risk. In terms of the magnitude of a leak and the risk of mass casualties, the liquefied natural gas facility in Everett is our biggest risk. If it were compromised, it would flow like a liquid river of fire, rather than explode.

Also, Spectra Energy is now building a large, 750 PSI pipe through densely populated West Roxbury, and as safe as they claim this pipe is, the number one cause of pipeline failure is unintentional third-party strikes, like contractors digging for construction and accidentally hitting a pipe. These large-scale, centralized storage and delivery systems are inherently vulnerable, and distributing our energy generation and storage with wind and solar ends up being better for our safety and resilience as well as for mitigating climate change.

Will you be able to apply your work in California to your teaching, research, or work with local officials in handling local leaks?

Yes. I’m honored to have been appointed to a Boston City Council working group to seek solutions to accelerate leak repair and enhance the safety and sustainability of the gas network in Boston. The Porter Ranch leak exemplifies the need to think beyond centralized, large-scale energy systems, and in my teaching and research, I want to help Boston transform itself into more of a sharing, distributed grid than simply a one-way consumption grid and pipeline network. Distributed solar (rooftop or community solar gardens), wind, and even renewable biogas generated from our own waste streams can help us move away from dependency on the giant, vulnerable reservoirs of fossil energy.