Southern California Gas Company, which has been struggling for months to control a leaking well above Porter Ranch, has delayed the drilling of a second relief well by nearly three weeks.
At the same time, the company has said that drilling of its first relief well is proceeding ahead of schedule and the leak could be stopped before the end of February. But the delay on the second well means that, for now, the company has essentially staked the kill operation on the success of the first well.
The leak at the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility, first reported on Oct. 23, has driven thousands of people from their homes and contributed to a dramatic increase in the state's methane emissions.
After six failed attempts to kill the well with brine and heavy liquids, the gas company began drilling its first relief well on Dec. 4. The well is intended to intercept the leaking well at a depth of 8,500 feet below ground. The company then can pump liquid into the relief well, stopping the flow of gas.
It is customary in the well-control industry to drill two relief wells in case something goes wrong with the first one. That was done to stop the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Aliso Canyon site, SoCalGas has been working for weeks to grade the hillside in order to create a flat well pad for the second well. According to a SoCalGas spokesman, that work was delayed by the rain a couple of weeks ago.
The company initially planned to begin drilling the second relief well today. However, company officials notified regulators earlier this week that drilling has been postponed to Feb. 8. If for some reason the first relief well fails to stop the leak, the second would not be in position to stop it for at least another couple of months.
The news has been better on the first relief well. The well has reached a depth of about 8,000 feet, and has entered the fifth and final stage of drilling. SoCalGas initially said the well would be complete sometime between the end of February and late March. On Monday night, the company announced that the first well is running ahead of schedule and could be done before the end of February.
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At this rate, it even seems possible that the first well could stop the leak before the second well begins drilling.
Some have said that the company's late-March estimate was overly pessimistic, and that it should only take a couple of months to drill an 8,500-foot well.
"With current technologies we can drill [20,000-foot] wells in 30 days or less," said Steve Vorenkamp, a former executive at Wild Well Control.
SoCalGas also has come in for criticism for taking six weeks to begin drilling the first relief well.