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California Gas Leak Biggest in US History

That Southern California natural gas leak pumped out enough methane to fill a balloon the size of the Rose Bowl every day until it was capped earlier this month.

The Southern California natural gas leak was the biggest one in U.S. history, pumping out enough methane to fill a balloon the size of the Rose Bowl every day until utility workers dropped in a cement plug earlier this month.

More than 100,000 tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that has 25 times the warming energy of carbon dioxide, spewed from a natural gas well in Aliso Canyon during 112 days, according to the first study of the accident published today in the journal Science.

Stephen Conley, atmospheric scientist at the University of California Davis, made more than a dozen flights through the methane cloud in a specially equipped airplane. He said it was pretty rough going. Turbulence and the methane gas combined to make the work difficult for researchers.

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"These are the worst flights we've ever done," said Conley, who patrols California checking on these kinds of leaks. "You would fly through this hideous smell. Everyone who came in the plane got sick. By the end I just stopped bringing people."

Conley's single-engine Mooney TLS aircraft carried instruments that provided real-time measurements of methane and ethane, two components of natural gas, and captured air samples for more comprehensive analysis later in the laboratory. During the incident, more than 11,000 nearby residents were evacuated and Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

Conley and his colleagues found that the gas leak accounted for an extra 9 percent of California's methane emissions for the year, or about one-quarter of the methane from the Los Angeles Basin. The leak will make it harder for California to meet greenhouse gas emission targets for the year, the researchers said.

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President Obama has proposed a 45 percent reduction in methane emissions from industry and agriculture by 2025. The goal is to curb the warming effects of methane, which turns into carbon dioxide after 10 to 12 years in the atmosphere.

"Our results show how failures of natural gas infrastructure can significantly impact greenhouse gas control efforts," said NOAA's Tom Ryerson, co-lead scientist on the study.

Globally, the Aliso Canyon leak is tiny, about a .002 percent of the yearly worldwide total. But it does throw a spotlight on human emissions of methane, which account for about one-quarter of the total greenhouse gasses, and the issue of methane leaks from gas pipelines.

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"What this shows is we do have to worry about these large leaks," said Steve Hamburg, a chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Globally, methane is rising. We are still trying to figure out why."

Conley says that gas leaks at Aliso Canyon, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig and another well in the North Sea point to the need for a quick-response team of researchers and technicians that can determine how bad things are from the beginning.

"We should have a national plan in place to respond to these events within hours rather than weeks or months," Conley said.

A massive well of natural gas leaked for months at the Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in the hills above the community of Porter Ranch.

If we judged the worst oil spills in history only by gallons leaked, the Exxon Valdez disaster -- which occurred 25 years ago today -- would not make the list. However, adding in environmental impacts and clean-up efforts, it's still recognized as one of most damaging spills to date. In 2009, Exxon Mobil Corp. was ordered to pay about $500 million in interest on punitive damages for the oil spill off Alaska, nearly doubling the payout to Alaska Natives, fishermen, business owners and others harmed by the 1989 disaster. Debate continues over what qualifies as an oil "disaster," but here are 10 that would certainly make the list.

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As the largest oil spill disaster in U.S. history, the

Exxon Valdez

incident continues to leave an incredibly damaging black mark. Shortly after midnight on March 24, 1989, the tanker was traveling outside of normal shipping lanes to avoid ice, when it struck the Blight Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Out of the 53 million gallons of crude oil onboard, 11 million gallons were lost in the accident. The size of the spill and its remote location in the pristine Alaskan wilderness made clean-up a horrendous task. Ten million birds, whales, otters and other animals were placed immediately at risk and thousands died.

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On March 18, 1967, the

Torrey Canyon's

entire cargo of 119,000 tons of Kuwait crude oil was lost after the tanker ran aground on Pollard Rock on the Seven Stones Reef off of Lands End, England. The Royal Navy dispatched a clean-up response team within four hours of the grounding. By March 26, the entire vessel had broken apart, putting an end to any hopes of towing the ship off the reef. The British government eventually decided to bomb it.

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In the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 1976, the crew of the aging Liberian oil tanker

Argo Merchant

could not keep control in the rough waves and 50-knot winds during a storm off the coast of Nantucket. The ship ran aground among the Nantucket shoals. On Dec. 16, the crew was evacuated, and by Dec. 22, the ship had broken into three pieces, spilling all of its 7.7 million barrels of oil into the ocean. Constant bad weather made salvage attempts very difficult, but environmentalists said damage to local waters were minimal. Strong currents carried the oil away from the Massachusetts shoreline and forced it out to sea.

BLOG: Record Dolphin, Sea Turtle Deaths Since Gulf Spill

Stormy weather, rough seas and a faulty piece of steering equipment proved to be a fatal combination for the

Amoco Cadiz

on March 16, 1978. The enormous vessel -- carrying almost 2 million barrels of oil -- was sailing from the Arabian Gulf to Le Havre, France when it ran aground on Portsall Rocks, three miles off the coast of Brittany, during a severe storm. The entire cargo spilled into the water, creating an oil slick 18 miles wide and 80 miles long, and it wasn't long before the force of the storm caused the ship to break apart.

BLOG: Shipwreck Oil Spill Time Bombs Identified

The only thing worse than one oil tanker exploding and sinking while at sea, is two oil tankers colliding at sea. During the rage of a tropical storm in the Caribbean, two giant supertankers, the

Atlantic Empress

and the

Aegean Captain

, each carrying over 200,000 tons of crude oil, collided near the islands of Trinidad and Tobago on July 19, 1979. The impact caused enormous, violent fires to break out over both ships. Between the two ships, 26 crew members died and 280,000 tons of crude oil were spilled into the Caribbean. Fortunately, the spills never reach shorelines.

BLOG: World War II Shipwrecks Pose Oil Spill Threat

In the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico, 600 miles south of Texas, the company Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) was drilling a 2-mile-deep oil well called IXTOC I. On June 3, 1979, a loss of drilling mud circulation forced a blowout, causing oil and gas to spew out of the well and ignite. The platform holding the drilling equipment and collecting the oil immediately caught fire and collapsed into the water. Several rescue crews worked for days to try to reach the Blowout Preventer (BOP) -- a large valve used to seal off the surface of a wellhead -- but poor visibility, debris and a long pipeline made it difficult. The IXTOC I well continued to spill oil at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day until it was finally capped on March 23, 1980 -- nine months after the initial incident. By the time it was capped, over 140 million gallons of oil had seeped into the bay, making it the second worst oil spill disaster in history.

Kuwait oil spills during the Gulf War remain the worst examples of eco-terrorism and are by far the worst oil disasters in history. Beginning in January 1991 during the Gulf War, the Iraqi Army deliberately spilled millions of barrels of oil in the Persian Gulf. Over 500 Kuwaiti tankers, oil fields and refineries were torched, and 3 to 6 million barrels of oil went up in smoke on a daily basis at the peak of the burnings. One 6-million-barrel spill covered over 600 square miles of water and the oil traveled as far as 20 miles away out into the Indian Ocean. The environmental and health risks were enormous, with over 90 million barrels of oil lost. Environmental experts deemed the incident 25 times more toxic than the Exxon Valdez.

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On April 11, 1991, while unloading crude oil onto a floating platform seven miles off the coast of Genoa, Italy, the MT


exploded, burned for three days and then sank, spilling over 42 million gallons of oil in its wake into the Mediterranean Sea. The Italian and French coastlines were polluted for 12 years after the accident.

When the huge oil tanker


wrecked about 130 miles of the coast of Galicia, Spain during a storm on Nov. 19, 2002. The ship broke apart and sank to the bottom as it spilled over 1.5 to 2 million gallons of oil into the Atlantic Ocean. Three massive "black tides" soiled 125 miles of Spanish coastline within two weeks after the accident. Considered to be twice as big as the

Exxon Valdez

accident, the Prestige accident remains the worst oil spill in Spain's history.

An oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, caused an offshore oil drilling platform to explode and sink, killing 11 men onboard. Government scientists declared the Deepwater Horizon spill the largest in U.S. history -- with twice as much oil spilled than in the Exxon Valdez disaster.

PHOTOS: Alarming Images of Oil-Drenched Gulf