Massive Porter Ranch Gas Leak a Cautionary Tale

Months of chaos, fear, and the smell of rotten eggs came to an end at Porter Ranch in Los Angeles on Thursday, once crews digging a relief well finally pierced the deep, underground casing of the damaged Aliso Canyon gas well and injected it with a mud-like compound.

"The well is no longer leaking,"  Jimmie Cho, senior vice president of gas operations and system integrity for Southern California Gas Co, reassured the community through the LA Times.

Once concrete is pumped into the well, which could begin on Friday, state officials will finally declare that the leak is over. And thousands of dislocated residents will gradually start to return to their homes and resume their normal lives.

The residents who decided to stay reported to the Times that the smell of rotten eggs had finally vanished.

The leaking well, one of 115 gas wells at the Aliso Canyon facility, has opened a very contentious debate over the safety of the storage field, one of the nation's largest with a capacity of 86 billion cubic feet.

So this was a creepy time to report that many of the wells are corroded and mechanically damaged, according to the gas company. (See the SoCal Gas website and press release.)

Residents were oblivious

Long before 30,000 residents lived in Porter Ranch, in the 1930s an oil company owned by J. Paul Getty started drilling and brought up crude oil for decades before depleting the reserves. Afterwards, those depleted fields got a second life.

In 1971, SoCal Gas bought the Aliso Canyon site and converted it to storage for natural gas. SoCal Gas uses the 115 wells there to inject gas into the same large underground field that once gushed oil. Gas is pumped out and sent to power up turbines during peak summer demand.

Today, it’s one of 400 similar storage facilities nationwide.

Since the late 1980s when developers built the subdivisions, the residents unknowingly lived near the subterranean lake of gas. (SoCal Gas background video)

A long struggle

The SoCal Gas scandal started slowly until it exploded on the Internet. Last year on October 23, employees discovered that Well SS-25 was leaking, but they weren't worried.

Although the damaged well extended 8,748 feet into a porous sandstone, the leak looked like it could be quickly capped. However, several attempts actually made it much worse.

The problem wafted under the public's radar until the EDF released a video in December showing a black cloud spewing gas from the scrubby Aliso Canyon hillside. Soon the leak was competing with Flint, Michigan's corroded water pipes for cable airtime, and the video had been YouTubed more than 1.3 million times.

The state had paid a climate scientist to fly back and forth downwind of the site and take measurements. He later told Bloomberg that when the alarming data first hit his screen, he was incredulous, thinking, “What the hell is that?” The levels were 15 times more than anything he’d ever observed. At first, he assumed it was equipment error, until the backup analyzer spit out the same results.

In the infrared photos, color on the left and black and white on the right, show a plume even though it can’t be seen by the naked-eye, as shown in the middle shot above (see the EDF press release).


In January Southern California’s air quality regulator sued SoCal Gas. The lawsuit demands damages for negligently operating the storage facility. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) is asking for up to $440,000 per day that the leak continued. (SCAQMD website)

The SCAQMD went on to say that the cause of all the trouble was SoCal Gas’ negligence, from the design to the inspections of the well. It also said that the company was too slow in responding to the leak when it was first discovered. The regulator also accused the gas company of failing to correctly hire and vet contractors to manage the well before and after the leak. "SoCal gas knew of the emission,” SCAQMD wrote, "and SoCal Gas failed to take corrective action within a reasonable period of time.”

Moving to fast

The long-term effects of the massive leak could be very bad news for the natural gas industry, since it calls into question the advertised benefits of the country’s quick, market-driven shift from coal to gas.

Around 2009, as fracked wells popped up across the US, the public focused on contaminated water, but scientists, concerned about climate change, also worried about the effects of methane escaping into the atmosphere, especially after NASA's orbital pictures of Bakken flaring revealed the enormity of the problem. Too much methane "slippage" or CO2 flaring could undermine the benefits of natural gas, long touted as a the "cleaner" alternative to dirtier coal.

Unfortunately modern "fracking," coupled with horizontal drilling turbo-charged by a fast depletion rate that mandated massive drilling, was so new and evolving so quickly that early studies relied mostly on theoretical modeling. Fracking supporters seized on findings that reported low emissions, while opponents brandished estimates of rates so high that natural gas looked dirtier than coal. “That was an unresolvable conversation,” Steve Hamburg, EDF’s chief scientist, told Bloomberg. Of course, the real elephant in the room was the aging infrastructure that moved natural gas across the entire country.

To finally resolve the debate, in 2012 the EDF started a series of peer-reviewed studies to measure emissions across the entire oil and gas supply chain. Most of the funding came from foundations and oil and gas companies.

The findings in North Texas’s Barnett shale field, the first basin to develop horizontal drilling and fracking, were way beyond expectations. Emissions were 90 percent higher than the estimates in the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and 10 percent of facilities accounted for 90 percent of the leaks. Some leaks were “persistent,” like unlit flares, malfunctioning valves, or other avoidable situations. Others were “episodic,” like Aliso. Most could be prevented with better monitoring and operations.

In California, the state found methane emissions 74 percent higher than previous estimates. Inspectors who recently visited Aliso found, in addition to the big leak at SS-25, 15 other wells emitting methane. 

EPA to the rescue

The EPA has proposed the first federal rules to limit methane leaks from oil and gas operations, but they mostly cover new facilities. Although that's a good start, about 90 percent of emissions come from older sources, according events on the ground at Aliso and the EDF study. 

Unfortunately, today, most gas regulation falls to states, which haven’t focused on leak detection and prevention. Colorado was the first to require regular monitoring and preventive maintenance. In early February, California proposed rules that would require quarterly inspection of both new and existing gas production sites.

Will this set back the natural gas business?

Images: Well SS-25, ScottL; Infrared images, EDF