Five questions about natural gas, answered

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By Kennedi Hewitt and Maddie Cindrich 

A SoCalGas storage facility sits alongside the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Maddie Cindrich.

A group of Los Angeles activists are demanding that SoCalGas shut down its natural gas storage facility in Playa Del Rey. They worry about a potential blowout that could harm hundreds in the nearby community. Here’s five quick things to know: 

What is natural gas? 

Natural gas, primarily composed of methane, is a fossil fuel mostly located deep beneath the Earth’s surface. While it is one of the most commonly found sources of energy on the planet, alongside petroleum and coal, it is considered to be one of the least sustainable energy sources. 

In the 19th century, natural gas was mostly used for street lights. It wasn’t until the 20th century, following World War II and the new pipeline, metallurgy and welding techniques that emerged in this period, that pipeline infrastructure experienced a massive boom in productivity due to the newfound reliability in pipelines. This improved transportation of natural gas allowed for more uses, such as powering stove tops, ovens, water heaters and water boilers as we moved into the 21st century.  
 

Is it renewable, or a form of green energy? 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines renewable energy as fuel sources capable of replenishing themselves in a short amount of time. Natural gas is generally seen as a non-renewable energy source. However, there are some cases where natural gas might be seen as renewable, known as “renewable natural gas”, a term used to describe biogas instead of the natural gas found in fossils. Biogas can be found in places such as landfills and livestock farms. 
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), green energy is “a subset of renewable energy and represents those renewable energy resources and technologies that provide the highest environmental benefit.” This would include sources such as solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy and biogas. Given the nature in which natural gas, with the exception of biogas, is typically collected and produced, it is not considered a green energy source. 

Read more about the environmental impacts of natural gas here.

What are the environmental dangers of natural gas? 

While the use of natural gas itself has negative environmental effects, the infrastructure used to transport and house it also causes problems. Methane leaks, coming largely from pipes and in part from home appliances, are the most concerning effect of natural gas for many. The amount that the leaks contributes to overall methane emissions has been found to be drastically underreported by the EPA

Methane is about 25 times more harmful to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, so this finding is alarming. 

What does this mean for the people living close to natural gas pipelines and storage facilities? 

From January 2010 to November 2019, almost 100 people died and thousands were forced to evacuate as a result of natural gas pipeline problems like leaks or explosions. Even when they’re not deadly, the leaks can cause a variety of health complaints. 

One of the most recent natural gas leak stories comes from Aliso Canyon, CA, in 2015, in which the biggest leak in U.S. history caused months of health complaints from residents and the evacuations of around 8,000 families. 

A deadlier incident occurred in San Bruno, CA, in 2010. The explosion caused 8 deaths and levelled a neighborhood. 

The incident in San Bruno occurred in a neighborhood close to the San Francisco International Airport. A couple miles away from another busy California airport, LAX, is the site of another potential natural gas explosion at the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles (just a couple of miles from LMU). 

What is LA leadership doing to address concerns? 

LA City Council members and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti have joined others in voicing concern about the presence of the storage facility in such a densely populated area, but no orders to shut it down have been issued. Instead, restoration of the wetlands that many activists oppose continues. Learn more about it here.

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