California Methane Blowout Led to the Largest Release of This Greenhouse Gas in U.S. History

First Posted: Feb 26, 2016 09:42 AM EST

Scientists have officially confirmed that the well blowout in California was the largest methane leak in U.S. history. First reported on Oct. 23, 2015, the blowout released over 100,000 tons of the powerful greenhouse gas methane before finally being sealed on Feb. 11.

During the time of the leak, the researchers flew in a specially equipped plane over the breached SoCalGas well. Measurements confirmed that high concentrations of methane and ethane were surging from the breached well and into the densely populated San Fernando Valley. In fact, at its peak the blowout doubled the rate of methane emissions from the entire Los Angeles basin and temporarily created the largest known human-caused point source of methane in the United States. It was twice as large as the next-largest source, which was an Alabama coal mine.

At the time of the blowout, more than 5,726 families were evacuated from the area as Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

"The methane concentrations were extraordinarily high, the highest we've seen in ambient samples," said Donald Blake, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We also detected other volatile organic compounds."

The mega-leak draws attention to the broader problem of fugitive emissions from natural gas production, processing, pipeline and storage infrastructure in the country. More specifically, it shows how important it is to take proper measurements and precautions when it comes to meeting greenhouse gas emissions goals.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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