When you picture underground natural gas storage (if you picture it at all), you might conjure up a remote industrial landscape: pipes, machinery, barbed wire fences. But new research from Harvard University paints a vastly different picture. According to a study released Sunday, much more natural gas infrastructure is in residential areas than researchers previously thought.
In fact, more than half of the underground natural gas wells the study looked at across six states were within one city block's distance from a home. That could mean a potential disaster for residential communities if a gas well fails.
The study comes from Harvard C-CHANGE (short for the Center for Climate, Health, and Global Environment) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It's part of an ongoing effort to better understand the populations at risk and the potential health impacts of a well failure like the 2015 Aliso Canyon well blowout in southern California that temporarily displaced over 11,000 people. This is the first time researchers have tried to quantify, outside of California, just how many people live near the kind of well that failed in the Aliso Canyon event.
Here are some key takeaways from the study's findings.
How Many People Are at Risk?
The researchers looked at how many people live near underground natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, New York, Michigan, and California. They found that 53,000 people across those six states live within 653 feet of underground gas storage wells, roughly the distance of a city block.
That's 10,000 more people living in close proximity to gas wells than previous estimates of the population at risk that had relied solely on census data.
And some homes are even closer, despite existing state regulations. The study found that more than 2,000 people live within their state's legal setback limit, which is the mandatory distance required to separate storage wells from residences—a distance usually between 100 and 300 feet. To provide some sense of scale for how close can be too close, the Aliso Canyon well blowout occurred a mile from the nearest homes.
The study suggests that suburban sprawl, or "population encroachment," is to blame for the close proximity of homes and wells. Most of the wells are more than 50 years old, and residents in newer developments might not even be aware of the hidden energy infrastructure beneath their own backyards.
What Can Happen When You Live Near an Underground Gas Well?
Gas storage facility failures can lead to explosions, fires, and leaks, causing fatalities and health problems for people in the vicinity. The Aliso Canyon leak in 2015 released benzene, toluene, xylene, and other chemicals that can cause neurological and respiratory problems and cancer. The residents of Porter Ranch, an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles, who were exposed to the Aliso Canyon leak reported symptoms like headaches, nausea, and excessive nosebleeds. At the time, Elijah Hurwitz interviewed residents for Pacific Standard about the experience of living nearby or relocating during the four-month-long leak:
While many residents chose to stay in their homes during the leak, thousands of families voluntarily relocated at the expense of the gas company due to illnesses and side effects allegedly caused by chemicals and carcinogens spewing from the ground. Despite the blowout being sealed, many families returning home have experienced the same health issues they fled in the first place such as nosebleeds, headaches, and nausea, leading many to believe that chemicals still linger inside homes.
Worst-case-scenario fears of explosions and breathing in noxious odors and carcinogens are only a concern if a gas storage well actually fails, which might seem unlikely given how infrequently we hear about natural gas leaks in residential areas. But the Harvard C-CHANGE researchers behind the new study have already determined that the conditions that led to the Aliso Canyon well failure aren't all that rare. Writing for Pacific Standard about the researchers' previous work in 2017, Francie Diep noted:
The team identified more than 14,000 active gas storage wells across America. One in five of them, or about 2,700, may be at risk for leaking because—like the failed Aliso Canyon well—they probably weren't originally designed to store natural gas, and were constructed before 1979, when important modern building techniques became widespread in the gas industry. Two hundred and ten of those wells were built before 1917, and so may be missing numerous safety features.
What's Being Done?
Not much so far.
Some state and local protections are already in place to limit where new natural gas storage facilities can be built in relation to homes. But for the existing gas wells and the people living on top of them, there are no such protections in place.
There's also currently no federal regulation to monitor air quality around the wells or study the public-health risks to the people who live near natural gas wells, according to The New Republic.
But as studies like this one continue to illuminate the possibility for a disaster greater than Aliso Canyon, gas companies and government agencies will face increasing pressure to step up safety measures.