KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A massive gas leak here in the Los Angeles area first announced back in October is still leaking. The company that operates the storage facility where the leak happened says the leak could be capped as soon as the end of the week. Most of the leaking gas is the greenhouse gas methane, which we know is harmful to the environment. Our question is, how harmful? To answer that, we head out to an airfield to see UC Davis researcher Steve Conley, who is pretty psyched about his current job, a job he's been doing every week for the past few months.
STEVE CONLEY: So this is a 1998 Mooney TLS, it's called.
MCEVERS: That job is to fly this plane right into a huge plume of methane gas. It's a tiny little prop plane with a bunch of electronics behind the pilot seat.
CONLEY: So this is a greenhouse gas analyzer here that is measuring methane and carbon dioxide and water.
MCEVERS: To understand the environmental effects of this huge leak of greenhouse gas, you have to measure it. And the best way to measure it is with this plane. Four little tubes under the right wing suck in air and feed data to those greenhouse gas analyzers.
This is one of how many planes in the United States that can do this?
CONLEY: I would say - of this size - five or four, something like that.
MCEVERS: Steve Conley flies over natural gas storage facilities all the time, and he always sees small gas leaks. But when he first was asked to fly over this big gas leak back in November, he was really shocked by what he found.
CONLEY: I'd never seen measurements like that before. And so my first reaction was, crap; what just happened? Did I hit too much turbulence and some laser got out of alignment or - so my first question was that something was wrong.
MCEVERS: Because the readings were so high you thought it was a mistake?
MCEVERS: But when he landed, he saw that two different instruments were both showing 50 or 60 parts of methane per million. The normal level here in LA is around two parts per million. The next two flights Steve Conley took, that 50 to 60 number went up. Since late November, it's steadily been going down. Still, Conley says, the amount of methane that's leaking out of the facility or well is enormous.
CONLEY: If you stick a balloon over the wellhead, by the end of the day your balloon would fill the Rose Bowl Stadium.
MCEVERS: We checked back with Conley on that figure. That balloon now would actually fill the Rose Bowl after 1.8 days. We wanted to go up in the plane with Conley, but he says the turbulence from the flight makes people really sick.
So they get sick during the flight or after?
CONLEY: During the flight. It's very inconvenient.
MCEVERS: So we asked Steven Conley to record while he's up there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Runway 3-4-left clear for takeoff.
CONLEY: Clear for takeoff on 3-4-left, 2132 x-ray.
MCEVERS: The way Conley gathers the data is to fly in this crazy figure-eight pattern over and over again.
CONLEY: Oh, my God.
MCEVERS: Turns out it's a really windy day.
CONLEY: Tightening up the seatbelt here.
MCEVERS: The turbulence in the valley where the leak happened is always bad, but on this day, it's particularly bad.
CONLEY: I think I'm going to make myself sick today.
MCEVERS: You can't see methane with the naked eye. If you look through infrared glasses, see this huge black plume.
CONLEY: It looks like we may have gone above the plume now. We're at 3,000 feet, and we haven't seen it in the last two laps. So I suspect we may have got above it finally.
MCEVERS: For the record, Conley does not get sick.
CONLEY: And tower Mooney 2132 x-ray, we're actually ready to come back and land.
MCEVERS: And he eventually heads back down. What Steve Conley found on this trip is that the methane is at about a third of what it was back in November. The company that runs the storage facility, Southern California Gas, has depressurized the leak. But again, there's still a lot of gas. Given those readings, we wanted to know how harmful all that methane is to the atmosphere here in California and beyond. And we put that question to Rob Jackson, and environmental scientist at Stanford.
ROB JACKSON: Methane is far more potent, molecule for molecule, than carbon dioxide is - the gas that people are used to thinking about in terms of climate change. That's the reason that we care so much about methane in the atmosphere.
MCEVERS: So we asked Jackson, how big of a deal is this gas leak?
JACKSON: It really depends on the scale that you look. The amount of methane leaking out on a day-to-day basis is comparable to whole countries. If you look in Europe, for instance, countries like Belgium and Austria produce about this much methane on a day-to-day basis from human activities, so it's really big. If you look globally, you're not going to see a massive spike when you look back at 2015 and 2016. It's not that huge.
MCEVERS: Because of this leak?
JACKSON: Yes. I mean, it's a huge leak in human terms, but it's not big enough that it will affect the global methane cycle so much that this would be some kind of bellwether year. It's really pretty small on the global scheme of things. The issue is more one on a local scale, on a regional scale. It's also a symbol of our reliance on fossil fuels.
MCEVERS: Right, especially in a time when California is actively trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
JACKSON: It's true. People have been spending millions and millions of dollars to dial back methane leaks around the U.S. and around the world. And one mistake like this comes along and can, you know, offset all of that, at least temporarily. Now, long term, those efforts to cut leaks really pay off. But in the short term, this one mistake kind of offsets all of that. It's a little discouraging. The question is, will - will this be some kind of turning point? Will this be a symbol that people use to drive a change, a transformation towards renewables? Or in six months, will everybody have forgotten about what's happened? We don't know yet, but I think people will remember this.
MCEVERS: That's Rob Jackson of Stanford University. SoCal Gas says the leak could be plugged as early as this week. We've also been reporting on the potential health effects of this gas leak. You can find that on our website, npr.org.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Kelly, I just got to jump in here. You've covered wars and natural disasters. Really, you drew the line at going up in a little prop plane?
MCEVERS: Now, as you heard, he said that it is almost guaranteed that the turbulence and this crazy figure-eight pattern that he used when he was flying was going to make you sick.
SHAPIRO: Oh, so it was really out of consideration for the pilot?
SHAPIRO: So you didn't want to get sick on the pilot?
SHAPIRO: OK, duly noted.
MCEVERS: I finally met my match.
SHAPIRO: Flying in war zones, yes, turbulence, no for Kelly McEvers.
MCEVERS: Right. Correct. Absolutely.
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