California's methane leak has wiped out most EV benefits

With Methane's Potent Effect On The Atmosphere, Porter Rance Is A Bad Scene

In November, an underground natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch, CA started leaking. Since then, it has spewed an immense amount of methane into the air. How much is still an unknown, but it's thrown more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other facility in California.

So, what does this all have to do with cars? Well, other than the connection between leaks from facilities like this and natural gas cars, it's the emissions. California has been the undisputed leader in moving its vehicle fleet away from gasoline. Thanks to zero-emission vehicle mandates and high-gas prices, Californians have purchased a lot of clean cars, many of them electric. Sad to say, but the methane leak at Porter Ranch has wiped out most of California's electric vehicle efforts. As the Los Angeles Times puts it, the leak has spewed as many greenhouse gases as a car would emit if it drove 5 million – sorry, billion – miles. Yes, billion. With a B.

While the exact numbers are guesses at best (it's impossible, apparently, to know how fast the methane is leaking out) here's how the math is likely to work out when we compare the leak to EVs. The leak is spewing around 1,200 tons of methane per day and is estimated to take six months to repair. We're currently in the third month. So, 1,200 tons for 180 days is 216,000 tons of methane. Since methane is 29 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, those 216,000 tons are the equivalent of 6.2 million tons of CO2.

Now, lets' look at the average new car in 2016, which will emit the equivalent of about 60 tons of CO2 over its life. Given that, 6.2 million tons is roughly the same as 103,000 standard, fossil fuel cars. But electric vehicles have zero tailpipe emissions and, since California has sold a bit over 150,000 EVs so car, all of the greenhouse gas benefits of two-thirds of all the EVs in California are being wiped out by this single methane leak. That's not to say all of those EVs were bought in vain – far from it – but it does put the Porter Ranch debacle into perspective for those of us who care about cleaner cars.

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