What Went Wrong at Porter Ranch?
Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch, has called for the closure of the Aliso Canyon storage site.
Photo by Danny Liao
Before she retired in 2014, Anneliese Anderle was a field engineer for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources, which regulates oil drilling. She worked out of offices in Bakersfield, Cypress and Ventura, and for a while she was responsible for monitoring the massive natural gas storage field at Aliso Canyon.
Southern California Gas owns the facility, which distributes gas to 14 power plants and 21 million customers. In her years monitoring wells at Aliso Canyon, Anderle says she got to know the gas company as "a first-class operation."
The company tended to be conservative, and to do things rigorously and by the book. But the wells at Aliso Canyon were aging, and many were starting to wear out.
"They have a beautiful facility," she says. "It's gleaming. They have great roads and well-marked pipelines. Everything's painted. But just below the surface, it's junk."
On Oct. 23, gas company employees noticed a leak out of the ground near a well called SS-25. It was late afternoon, so they decided to come back in the morning to fix it.
The next day, however, their efforts were unsuccessful. Gas was now billowing downhill into Porter Ranch, an upscale community on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Customers were beginning to complain about the smell.
Gas leaks are not uncommon, and it took a couple weeks for this one to become news. When Anderle heard about it, in early November, she pulled up the well record on a state website. The file dates back to when the well was drilled in 1953. As she looked it over, she zeroed in on a piece of equipment 8,451 feet underground called a sub-surface safety valve.
If it were working properly, the gas company would be able to shut down the well. The fact that SoCalGas hadn't meant, to her, that it must be broken. The records indicated that it had not been inspected since 1976.
"That's almost 40 years," she says. "It's a long time to leave it in the well."
As weeks went by and further efforts to stop the leak failed, it became clear that the company was dealing with an unprecedented catastrophe.
On Dec. 15, the Weekly interviewed Rodger Schwecke, a SoCalGas executive who is helping to coordinate the response to the leak. Asked about the safety valve, he said it wasn't damaged. It actually wasn't there.
"We removed that valve in 1979," he said.
He pointed out that the valve was old at that time and leaking. It also was not easy to find a new part, so the company opted not to replace it. If SS-25 were a "critical" well — that is, one within 100 feet of a road or a park, or within 300 feet of a home — then a safety valve would be required. But it was not a critical well, so it was not required.
"Now there's definitely going to be a push for changing the regulations," Anderle said, when told of the missing valve. "You get rid of a safety valve because it wasn't working? A safety valve would have shut the damn well down! They're in a bunch of trouble."
Gas has now been spewing out of the ground at Aliso Canyon for two months. The gas company expects it to continue for up to another three months. Methane is a potent contributor to climate change. By one estimate, the leak is producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the tailpipes of 2.3 million cars.
The Aliso Canyon leak has increased the state's methane emissions by 21 percent. As of now, 2.3 percent of the state's entire carbon footprint is coming from one hole in the ground above Porter Ranch.
"This is an environmental disaster," said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who stopped by Porter Ranch Community School in November, just before flying to Paris for the United Nations climate change conference. "It's devastating. It makes you question the long-term sustainability of a carbon-based power system."
The local impact also has been severe. About 30,000 people live in Porter Ranch, a bedroom community of gated developments with 4,000-square-foot homes that sell for $1 million or more. The neighborhood offers good schools, clean air and a sense of security. All of that has been disrupted. Many residents have experienced headaches, nosebleeds, nausea or other symptoms. Some 2,000 families have been moved to hotels or short-term rentals to escape the gas.
"It's frightening," says Ellen Oppenberg, a resident of Porter Ranch for 22 years. "You have a home that you used to love. People move to Porter Ranch for the views, the camaraderie and the community. Now we're seeing it be destroyed."
Families have agonized about whether to allow their children to play outdoors. The school district has opted to relocate two schools starting in January. Some parents have rushed their babies to the emergency room with shortness of breath. Some say their pets are throwing up. Whenever anyone gets sick they wonder, Is it the gas?
"I'm in the frame of mind of, 'What do I gotta do to protect my family?'" says Pete Adams, a longtime Porter Ranch resident who has not left but is thinking about it. "Did I cause irreversible damage to my family by being ignorant?"
Public health officials have tried to be reassuring. The air readings are not so bad as to require a mandatory evacuation. But officials also have said that people's symptoms are real, and have forced the gas company to pay for relocations.
Lawyers are coming in from around the country to sign up clients to sue the gas company. The first class-action suit was filed on Nov. 23, and at least two more have followed. A massive crowd came out to a megachurch on a Wednesday night to hear Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental crusader, give a pitch for yet another law firm.
So far, officials have not faulted the gas company's efforts to stop the leak, nor have they cited conditions that may have caused it. But outside experts have identified several concerns. Among them is the missing safety valve. Some also have questioned why it's taking so long to drill a relief well to seal the leak.
For a company that is generally so cautious, SoCalGas seems to have been unprepared for a leak of this magnitude. That's especially troubling because SS-25 is far from unique. Many other wells are just as old, or older, and according to SoCalGas they also lack sub-surface safety valves. If one of them were to crack, this disaster could easily happen again.
When they bought their homes in Porter Ranch, few people had any idea they were moving so close to one of the largest gas-storage facilities in the country. Aliso Canyon is a massive natural reservoir — about one cubic mile, buried a mile and a half below ground.
Oil was discovered there in 1938. The Tidewater Associated Oil Company, owned by J. Paul Getty, produced oil and gas from the field until it was depleted in the early 1970s. Getty Oil sold the field to Pacific Lighting Corp. (a gas company formed in the 19th century, when gas was used to light homes), which converted it to storage in 1972.
Sempra Energy, the successor to Pacific Lighting Corp. and the parent company of Southern California Gas, now owns the field. It is quite common for gas to be stored in depleted oil fields. In addition to Aliso Canyon, Sempra owns three smaller storage fields in Southern California: Playa del Rey, La Goleta and Honor Rancho.
Most of the wells at these fields were drilled many decades ago. In filings with the Public Utilities Commission in 2014, the company noted that of 229 wells at its facilities, half were at least 57 years old. Fifty-two of them were at least 70 years old.
Steel corrodes after decades underground. In 2008, the company had to do three costly workovers to repair leaking wells. By 2013, that number had grown to nine.
The older wells were not built to modern standards. New wells typically are sealed to the surrounding rock formation with cement from the surface of the ground to the bottom of the well. That makes the casings stronger and protects them from water. Older wells were not cemented from top to bottom.
SS-25 is made of three cylinders one inside the other. Gas is escaping from a vast underground "reservoir" via a hole in the inner, 7-inch casing at 470 feet deep. The gas is traveling down to the end of the outer casing at 990 feet, then out through the rock. Modern wells are cemented from the surface to the reservoir to stop corrosion, but the 7-inch casing of this well, circa 1953-1954, was only cemented from a depth of 6,600 feet down to 8,500 feet. The hole from which gas is spewing occurred far above this safety cementing.
Illustration by Darrick Rainey
SS-25 was cemented only from the bottom up to a depth of 6,600 feet. The rest — more than a mile of steel pipe — was left exposed to the rock formation. At the top, the 7-inch casing is surrounded by an 11¾-inch surface casing, which is cemented to the rock. But a new well also would have a layer of cement between those casings to provide greater strength and protection from corrosion.
Gas is now leaking through a hole in the 7-inch casing at 470 feet down to the bottom of the outer casing at 990 feet, and out through the rock to the surface.
The corporate culture of SoCalGas is nothing if not deliberate. And so, in 2014, the company proposed a methodical effort to check each well for corrosion. It would take about seven years and cost tens of millions of dollars. The plan was part of a request to the Public Utilities Commission to increase customers' monthly gas bills by 5.5 percent. The alternative was to fix leaks only as they occurred, which one executive warned could be dangerous and lead to "major situational or media incidents."
The SoCalGas plan went well beyond the requirements imposed by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources, or DOGGR. Steve Bohlen, the outgoing head of DOGGR, has said several times that it does not appear that Southern California Gas violated any regulations.
"He said there was nothing in the record that the gas company did where they broke the rules, which is true," says Anderle, who worked for DOGGR for 21 years. "The trouble is, the rules are so soft and undemanding."
Pressure tests must be done every five years, in addition to annual temperature surveys. But that would detect only an active leak, not one that was about to happen.
At this point, Brandon Ly is ready to go. He lives in Porter Ranch Estates, in a three-bedroom house about a mile and a half south of SS-25. He says that since the leak started he's had rashes, body aches and blurred vision.
His bigger concern is for his wife, Judy. She's a breast cancer survivor. Her doctor has advised her to avoid carcinogens. They're worried about benzene, which is a carcinogen and is found in trace amounts in natural gas.
The Lys keep the windows closed and they don't take walks anymore. Still, he worries that she's exposed to something that could cause long-term damage. Her cancer has been in remission long enough that they can try to have a baby.
"I just want to get out of here," Ly says.
Brandon Ly and his wife, Judy, live just a mile and a half from the leak. They have requested to be relocated.
Photo by Danny Liao
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He has called the gas company for a temporary relocation. But he really wants to sell his house. Even after this leak is plugged, there are 114 other wells at Aliso Canyon. Who's to say one of them won't fail? He called a real estate agent and was told that, because of the leak, it's a bad time to sell.
"I feel like I'm trapped," he says. "I'm stuck in a poisonous house."
Arlene Stein lives on the next street over.
"You can smell it really bad on our cul de sac," she says. "When it's bad, it's nauseating. I've had headaches almost continuously for the last couple of months."
She has lived there since 1994. She moved in just before the Northridge earthquake, which damaged homes across Porter Ranch. She also was there for the Sesnon Fire in 2008, which came right up to the edge of her street.
That lasted only a few days. The gas leak has gone on for two months, with no end in sight. At first, the gas company said it would be over relatively quickly. But each attempt to kill the well failed. Finally, the company announced it was drilling a relief well, which would intercept the leaking well 8,000 feet below ground. It would take three to four months to drill.
"They just keep saying it's very complicated and they have to go slow," Stein says. "Why does it take four months to drill into the ground?"
As the weeks went on, more and more of her neighbors decided to relocate. The gas company will pay up to $250 per room per night, for up to 90 days. After calling around for several days, Stein found a vacation rental in Sherman Oaks that would allow her dogs.
"It feels like a cover-up that they didn't tell us right away," says Stein, one of about 200 demonstrators who recently picketed outside the entrance to Aliso Canyon, calling for its closure. "I would like them to shut down the whole facility."
Natural gas is invisible. But heat-sensing cameras have been able to capture a plume of gas erupting out of the hillside. The situation is particularly dangerous for the 100 to 200 workers who are at the site at any given time trying to kill the well. The hillside could be undermined by flowing gas, or the gas could ignite.
For the gas company, the motto has been "work slow to work fast," Schwecke says. They are proud that so far no workers have been injured. "If you try to rush things, that's when something happens," he says.
The company has taken a very cautious and deliberate approach to killing the well, starting with the most conservative option and then proceeding to more aggressive steps.
SoCalGas has made six "kill attempts," in which brine or heavier liquid is poured down the well in an effort to stop the flow of gas. All of those efforts have failed.
The peak demand for natural gas comes during the winter. So in the fall, the company filled the reservoir almost to its capacity. When the leak started, the reservoir was near its peak pressure.
The gas flowing out of SS-25 is moving at high velocity. Each time the gas company tries to stop it with liquid, the liquid is either blasted out the hole in the casing or back up to the top.
The last kill attempt was on Nov. 25. Though the company hasn't come out and said so, it appears to have essentially given up on that option. On Dec. 4, six weeks after the leak began, SoCalGas began drilling the relief well.
The company has brought in Boots & Coots, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which is globally renowned in the field of well control. Once its workers intercept SS-25 at a depth of 8,000 feet, they will pour liquid and cement into the well, sealing it off.
Outside experts agree that this is a surefire way to kill the leaking well. But they have criticized both the delay in setting up the relief well and the time estimate for completing it.
"They really should have started drilling that well as soon as they found out it was leaking," says Greg McCormack, an expert in petroleum engineering based in Houston. "They would be well on their way to being able to control the well."
Steve Vorenkamp, a former executive at Wild Well Control, says it was his company's practice to drill two relief wells, as was done on the Deepwater Horizon leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
"If one causes problems or breaks down, you have a backup," Vorenkamp says.
The gas company is planning to drill a second relief well. But first it must grade a new well pad and bring in a drill rig from off-site. Schwecke estimates the drilling on the second well won't begin until later in January.
He also says the company drilled the first relief well as fast at it could. He says the planning and site preparation began about two weeks after the leak was discovered.
"You can't just set up a rig and start drilling tomorrow," Schwecke says. "We probably did that month and a half of work in what would usually take three months."
Yet outside experts suggest that four months is a very conservative estimate for how long the relief well ought to take.
"Oh my word," Vorenkamp says, when told of the estimate. "I question why so long for an 8,000-foot well."
McCormack says it should take closer to two months.
Some experts have suggested more creative ways to kill the well, such as inserting cement between the 7-inch and 11¾-inch casing. Schwecke says the company does have an easy way to do that — and says it wouldn't work. "You can't plug on the outside and expect it to hold," he says. "That's like putting a finger in a dike."
There's also a chance that a creative solution could unintentionally increase the flow of gas and thus make the situation worse. Such a risk would be out of character for Southern California Gas.
On Dec. 9, Erin Brockovich addressed 2,000 people at Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch. She said she had heard the complaints of nosebleeds, rashes, headaches, nausea and vomiting. She warned them not to trust the gas company when its officials say the air is safe.
"I definitely want all of us to stay united," she said. "When we all stick together, things will go better."
In the back, people were picking up retainer agreements for Weitz & Luxenberg, the firm that works with Brockovich to file environmental suits. They planned to file the first suit within a week.
"We think it's important that each person has his or her voice," attorney Robin Greenwald said, "to be able to say this is how you hurt me and this is what I want in return for you hurting me."
By the time of the meeting, R. Rex Parris, a plaintiff's attorney and the mayor of Lancaster, had already filed a class-action lawsuit. Parris represents Save Porter Ranch, the activist group that had been raising alarms about oil drilling in the hills before the leak began.
Patricia Oliver, an attorney with the Parris firm, notes that they would bring a local perspective to the case.
"We're trying to work with the best trial lawyers in L.A.," she says, noting that Greenwald is from New York.
Matt Pakucko, the president of Save Porter Ranch, says that Brockovich's presentation offered little new information. At one point, a presenter showed a map with an inaccurate location of the leak.
"They don't even know where the fucking thing is," he says.
There's also the firm of McCuneWright, which filed a class-action suit on Nov. 23.
"We were the first firm to act and move on this, long before anybody else," says David Wright, a partner in the firm. "We have an extensive amount of experience in class-action and complex litigation."
Each firm will take a significant chunk of any settlements, ranging from 30 to 40 percent. The damages could end up being substantial. In securities filings, Sempra has said it has more than $1 billion in insurance policies.
The attorneys have given voice to a lot of people who have been deeply frustrated with the gas company. "SoCalGas has lied about absolutely every fucking thing that has come out of their mouth since the beginning," Pakucko says. "I don't believe a goddamn thing they say."
But for others, there's a concern that the lawyers are just interested in signing up as many clients as possible, and not necessarily considering what's best for the community.
"It's all a big money grab," says Pete Adams, who lives about two miles from the leak along Aliso Canyon. Right now, he says he's not interested in suing. He just wants some answers. "I don't need an activist, a lawyer and a con man," he says. "What I need is a doctor, a real estate agent and a moving company."
On Dec. 4, SoCalGas began drilling a relief well, but it may take months to halt the leak.
Courtesy Southern California Gas
Sean O'Rourke lives in the Tuscany development, about two and a half miles from the leak. He can't smell the gas at his house. He's also looked at the air readings and doesn't see anything that alarms him. His biggest concern is about the disruption involved in closing his children's school.
The lawyers, he says, "may be moving too fast for the neighborhood."
"What if all this commotion and this craziness — what if it wasn't handled in the best way?" he asks. "What if the disruption to our property values is more the cause of the hysteria and not what the actual leak was doing?"
Steve Bohlen, who just stepped down as head of DOGGR, has avoided issuing any criticism of SoCalGas. He has often said that no one has a greater incentive to stop the leak than the gas company.
"They have been very agreeable to the things we've requested," he tells the Weekly. "They have some of the best talent in the world to try to solve this problem."
Bohlen won't comment on the causes of the leak, saying a full investigation will begin once the leak is stopped. Nor is he prepared to say whether the missing safety valve would be a focus of the investigation.
"We will have to wait for post-closure investigation for technical experts to evaluate whether that would have played a role either in the leak or in making it more difficult to seal the well," he says.
DOGGR was formed 100 years ago to facilitate the production of oil and gas. Though its mission now includes protecting public health and the environment, it is still seen as being friendly to the petroleum industry.
"It has been a permitting agency," says Sen. Fran Pavley, who chairs the committee that oversees DOGGR. "They don't see themselves as a regulatory agency."
Pavley has said she will hold hearings on the leak, which could result in new regulations. But new regulations are unlikely to satisfy activists who want Aliso Canyon closed.
"The regulatory system is broken," says Alexandra Nagy of Food & Water Watch. "We're not playing that game. Adding more laws on the books — we're not falling for that."
At least in the foreseeable future, however, closing Aliso Canyon seems unlikely. Over the next decade, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power will be transitioning away from electricity generated from coal. That will force the utility to rely even more heavily on natural gas. The gas company has argued it's essential to have storage close to its customer base. If Aliso Canyon were to close, the company says, it would have to get gas from faraway sources, which could lead to price spikes and blackouts.
Anderle believes there are new regulations that would prevent a similar leak from happening again. And since there are so many other old wells at Aliso Canyon, she says it's worth strengthening the rules.
"You have kids that are sick. People are being displaced from their homes during Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year's, and they won't have their life back until maybe March. Property values are going to take a huge hit," she says.
That could have been prevented if regulations had been tighter. "These regulations would not give you a hint that you had trouble," she says. "When you have a well this old, you ought to pull it every once in a while and check down hole."