California's Worst Gas Leak In 40 Years (And Crews Can't Stop It)

Tyler Durden's picture

While world leaders signed the 'historic' agreement signed in Paris to fix the world's "greatest threat," a natural gas storage site in southern California is belching 145,000 pounds per hour of Methane - a greenhouse gas 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide. What is worse, while official proclaim this a "top priority" a fix won't arrive until spring as emergency crews recognize "the leak was far from routine, and the problem was deeper underground."

As Wired reports, in just the first month, that’s added up to 80,000 tons, or about a quarter of the state’s ordinary methane emissions over the same period.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently banned low-flying planes from flying over the site, since engines plus combustible gas equals kaboom.


Steve Bohlen, who until recently was state oil and gas supervisor, can’t remember the last time California had to deal with a gas leak this big. “I asked this question of our staff of 30 years,” says Bohlen. “This is unique in the last three or four decades. This is an unusual event, period.”


Families living downwind of the site have also noticed the leak—boy, have they noticed. Methane itself is odorless, but the mercaptan added to natural gas gives it a characteristic sulfurous smell. Over 700 households have at least temporarily relocated, and one family has filed a lawsuit against the Southern California Gas Company alleging health problems from the gas. The gas levels are too low for long-term health effects, according to health officials, but the odor is hard to ignore.


Given both the local and global effects of the gas leak, why is it taking so long to stop? The answer has to do with the site at Aliso Canyon, an abandoned oil field. Yes, that’s right, natural gas is stored underground in old oil fields. It’s common practice in the US, but largely unique to this country. The idea goes that geological sites that were good at keeping in oil for millions of years would also be good at keeping in gas.


Across the US, over 300 depleted oil fields, of which a dozen are in California, are now natural gas storage sites. “We have the largest natural gas storage system in the world,” says Chris McGill, a vice president of the American Gas Association. And the site at Aliso Canyon is one of the largest in the country, with a capacity of 86 billion cubic feet. Aliso became a natural gas storage site in the 1970s. Each summer, SoCalGas pumps natural gas into the field, and each winter, it pumps it out. The sites are basically giant underground reserves for winter heating.


On October 23, workers noticed the leak at a 40-year-old well in Aliso Canyon. Small leaks are routine, says Bohlen, and SoCalGas did what it routinely does: put fluid down the well to stop the leak and tinker with the well head. It didn’t work. The company tried it five more times, and the gas kept leaking. At this point, it was clear the leak was far from routine, and the problem was deeper underground.

Here’s the new plan:

SoCalGas began drilling a relief well on December 4.  The relief well will intercept the steel pipe of the original well—all of seven inches in diameter—thousands of feet below ground. Then crews will pour in cement to seal the wells off permanently. “Relief wells are a proven approach to shutting down oil and gas wells,” said SoCalGas in a statement.

As if finding a skinny pipe hundreds of feet below ground weren’t hard enough, the presence of all that explosive natural gas adds an extra layer of complication. A tiny spark and everything can go boom. So at the leaking well site, work is restricted to daylight, says Bohlen, as lighting equipment could produce stray sparks. (The relief well is far enough away that drilling there can proceed 24/7.) Back in 1975, a well at Aliso Canyon caught fire because of sparks from sand flying up the well.

And crews can’t set a deliberate fire, also known as flaring, which they often do at other remote areas with excess gas. The leak is so big and the flare would be so hot that it could make the mess even harder to contain.

“There is no stone being left unturned to get this well closed. It’s our top priority,” says Bohlen. But even that is slow, with months of drilling to come as methane continues to billow into the air.

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Croesus's picture

As Wired reports, in just the first month, that’s added up to 80,000 tons, or about a quarter of the state’s ordinary methane emissions over the same period.


Let me guess...the other 3/4's comes from Diane Feinstein, and Hollyweird. 

Baby Bladeface's picture

This well set alight will be next big news story when something bigger requires distraction from.

Squid-puppets a-go-go's picture

'problem deeper underground'...

hmmm I wonder if fracking has any bearing on this??

Anopheles's picture

Do you realize that fracking first began in the 1940's?  It's been commonly used on oil wells around the world for half a centruy.  

That gas reservoir is 8,000 feet down, that's over 1-1/2 miles. 


The contriversy with fracking (there have been almost zero problems) is when it's used in shallow shales of only a few hundred feet, not thousands of feet. 

QQQBall's picture

I think contrivirsy has two "i" - fixed it s/

Anopheles's picture

I forgot to spell check and you posted before I could fix it...  Thanks. 


There have been only a couple isolated problems with fracking, out of the million plus wells that have been fracked.  The problems have only occurred in shallow, shale wells. 

Occasionally, even water wells are fracked to increase capacity. 

Big Corked Boots's picture

I actually thought you made a new word for "contrived controversy." Considering that's what all the noise about fracking is. BTW my water well is fracked also.

NoDebt's picture

"The gas itself is odorless, but the mercaptan added to natural gas gives it a characteristic sulfurous smell."

Solution:  take the mercaptan out.  Then nobody will know it's leaking.  You know, until somebody dowwind steps outside for a smoke.  But by then they'll find somebody else to blame it on.  Maybe "terrists".


wee-weed up's picture

So, Kalifornica is now just one big fart.

Big Corked Boots's picture

You mean - it wasn't before?

(full disclosure - I'm from NJ, so I shouldn't throw stones.)

knukles's picture

Guess this means a whole lot of hearings, fines and.... wait for it .....
Campaign contributions from PG&E to Politicians in Sacramento

erkme73's picture

70x GWP of CO2.. Pfft... That's nothing.  They ought to look at the SF6 being emitted by PGE's electric grid.  That stuff has a GPW of 23,000 - and survives for 3200 years.

Stuck on Zero's picture

I believe that they have hired the Tepco team to try and control this raging disaster.  They have the experience.

Doña K's picture

Futures are up 4.5% already

Theosebes Goodfellow's picture

The real mo'fo' is that I have to shell out $50 tomorrow to get my truck smogged here is SoCal. Now ain't that some shit?

Max Cynical's picture

This is a big deal...literally 1000's of residents are having to relocate, schools are being closed and authorities have no idea when this will be fixed. A Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) has been established ( below 2K feet AGL that doesn't expire until March 2016. John and Ken on KFI AM 640 have been all over this story.

Manthong's picture

Hey, what’s 70 tons of methane per day for 3 or 4 months between friends?

The AGW whacko crowd will all agree this will have no effect on their understanding about how delicate and fragile the environment is and that the exhalations of an Etruscan shrew can still upset the gossamer interactions between terrestrial life and the atmosphere.

And.. according to renowned environmental science expert and biologist, Ted Turner, If we don’t reduce the earth’s population by 5 billion people, we are all goners.


knukles's picture

Assholes like Ted should lead the way by suicide if he really believes it.  Fucking left wing super rich arrogant hypocritical Cadillac Fascist Communist ...


TBT or not TBT's picture

If we did off those 5 billion, then Ted would be 5/7ths right.   

DanDaley's picture

Exactly, you first, Ted, you hypocritical punk..have a party and invite all of your friends and do it together...we'll all send flowers and shed a tear, I'm sure.

thesonandheir's picture

Strangely enough unodourised natural gas isn't odourless and can be detected by seasoned O&G personnel.

ajax's picture


"Contriversy". That would be absolutely everything out of the mouths of any and every "Californian" whereas "Conspiracy" is 50% of whatever is written here on Zero Hedge. Neither bears thinking about. Really, neither.

cornflakesdisease's picture

The spelling nazis have small penis syndrome.

TurnwiseWiddershins's picture

No problems?

Yeah tell that to the people who can light their well water on fire.

boattrash's picture

Walking to school over 40 yrs ago, I used to light Nat. Gas that would bubble up out of the ground after the rains.

Yes, I carried a lighter, a knife, rode bikes w/out a helmet, shot BB guns and firearms, played with mercury, and a list of other things.

I'm still here, with all of my body parts...

EBT excepted's picture

yeah, if'n dey is evehn one o' dem, da leffists ca find 'em bruthah...

Ghostmaker's picture

The problem was caused by pumping natural gas in an old oil empty oil well. The technology of fracking might actually allow them to cap it.

Ghostmaker's picture

The problem was caused by pumping natural gas in an old oil empty oil well. The technology of fracking might actually allow them to cap it.

Dixie Rect's picture

Moonbeam Jerry Brown, who claims to be saving the world from climate change has been oddly silent about this leak of greenhouse gasses.

Oh! Wait a minute. Would it have anything to do with his sister Kathleen Brown being on the board at Sempra Energy, the owner of the gas storage facility.

The corruption never ends.

cossack55's picture

Super. Realistic property values in the area.

Dre4dwolf's picture

If it wasn't for Silicon Valley.... california would look like Detroit.


Tall Tom's picture

California could secede from the Union of Parasitic States and be self sustaining.


Of course many in Los Angeles and San Diego would perish due to the lack of water from the Colorado River....a pity and a small price to pay. That will happen anyway due to the oncoming Financial Collapse and is unavoidable.


It will secede as the United States of Parasites fragments.


And many in the desolate unproductive "flyover states" will go without as a result.


Now when we can reinstitue a small Government in California, which will happen post collapse, there will be no better place to be. Of course the dead zones of oceans off of the coasts will grow exponentially due to the ELE at Fukushima.


Even Texas Oil Wells are depleted while California has large untapped offshore firlds in reserve. But the Gulf of Mexico is already a vast dead zone of oxygen depleted waters..


The storyline of Soylent Green is manifesting.



ajax's picture


"California could secede from the Union of Parasitic States and be self sustaining."

No, it couldn't. No more than Texas can. It's a cute idea but it's ultimately just masturbatory nonsense for people like you.

Disc Jockey's picture

I just love wearing my State of Jefferson hat in the bars. You'll make instant friends.

Where's Lex Luther when you need him to make some beach-front property in the central valley?

Long live the Great State of Jefferson!

OldPhart's picture

Governor Brown, demanding offsets to the Global Warming gas leak, mandated closures of all Del Taco and Taco Bell restaurants.

The resulting offset pushed pushed climate changing gases to a new, historic, minimum.


(A bowl of my chili brings panic to environmentalists.)

earnulf's picture

As a resident of those "flyover states" that you so swiftly wrote off, may I remind you that the only reason you can have a major city, is that those "flyover states are providing you with food and water.    The FS is neither desolate, nor unproductive, especially when it comes to survival.    And most of us know how to use a weapon as well as grow food.

Plus, we also have oil wells and natural gas and salt.   We can be a pretty self sufficent bunch and understand the rules of barter. 

hannah's picture

If it wasn't for Silicon Valley.... california would look like Mexico.

fattail's picture

This sounds a flock of black swan circling for a freshly scorched spot to land.  Maybe the next big earthquake will spark a huge new housing boom in LA.

trader1's picture

accelerating climate change

CPL's picture

Only if you burn it. 

Unlike the Methane that is used in heating and power production, natural methane in pockets has no smell.  If it creeps up on a person, they will simply get sleepy and die.  Additionally building materials like lumber and concrete will absorb it.  What's fascinating about methane is it is one of the only gasses that can turn any volume of concrete into a large flammable bomb.  Just by how the concrete is porous and will absorb the methane at a steady rate until a structure is saturated then all it takes is s single spark or a back firing car or whatever.  BOOM!  The only other thing that can also be absorbed with Methane is it's horribly destructive counterpart, Hydrogen sulfide which ALWAYS accompanies Methane deposits when they are extracted carelessly.  Hydrogen sulfide tends to 'spark' and set fires, it is also very corrosive and hihgly poisonious.  The climate issues when handling methane and hydregen sulfide are meaningless, the challenge is the volatile explosive nature of the gas. 

With the scale of which it is pluming from the ground.  Some quick math.  145,000 pounds per hour turns into around 18 kg/ put it in perspective, that is about a BBQ tank of gas per second emptying into the surrounding area.  It's enough to kill anything in a single story house without much difficulty.  To give an idea of the destructive power of only 30,000 pounds of NG, there was a disaster in Illinois in 1983.  It is gauged to be one of the largest non nuclear explosions on record not involving a rocket or poorly managed munitions.  It took days to get near the fire it started and turned the box cars and train into molten steel slag in an instant.

Again, the climate change angle is so inconsequential in comparison to what Methane does in terms of it's ability to destroy. 

There is a reason it was never looked at as a fuel source until there was no option left.  The fact is roughly 1.5 kilotonnes of explosive power is streaming out of that poorly engineered project.  Per hour.  The fact that they do any natural gas drilling on an unstable fault line is dumb enough, the shame is they knew that it was a bad idea and did it anyways.  They are very, very, very dumb. 

What will mostly likely happen is the air quality will just get very poor as Methane is a heavy gas and tends to 'pool and flow'.  The path of least resistance looking at the placement of the leak and the topography of the area....right through Los Angeles to the coastal waters where the ocean will absorb it, or not.  If not it'll just pool as a toxic fog that rolls along the west coast and kills everything along the coast line while more than likely burning most of Los Angeles to the ground eventually.

Anopheles's picture

Unburned methane is a greenhouse gas.  After it's burned, it's no longer methane....  CO2 and H2O

CPL's picture

CO2 is the green house gas.  Carbon Dioxide is the 'problem', methane is not a 'problem'.  It is a transactable commodity people buy and sell Carbon credits for to flag the potential creation of CO2 gasses based on what they are burning for energy.  It does not matter what is burned btw.  A Cord of wood or methane, both create CO2 and both are carbon taxed because they create the green house gas C02.  Because it is only a greenhouse gas if it rises in to the troposphere and creates a blanket gas to hold heat in.  Again, methane doesn't do that, CO2 does. 

Methane, like all gasses, fill the area it can occupy and 'flows' where there is space to 'pool'.  In this case, Los Angeles which is down the hill from the well.

Stainless Steel Rat's picture

Methane is a greenhouse gas that by weight contributes as much as 72 times as CO2 to global warming.

rejected's picture

All gases in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas to some degree. so why don't we just eliminate the atmosphere?

Problem solved.

PS: My degree in Jazz at Oberlin helped me solve this problem. Now, where's my safe place?

CPL's picture

Get rid of people that make the lion's share of it and that solves a couple of issues pretty fast doesn't it?  It's not a pretty solution, but it works just fine long term.  In this case, problem takes care of itself from bad engineering and no solutions to stop it.  Just like the nuclear industry.

Stuck on Zero's picture

CPL: Methane is a very light gas (density = 0.716 kg/m3). The density of air is 1.225 kg/m3. It rises extremely fast so that a leak is not usually very hazardous. In some cases it will mix with air in a cloud in a nasty fuel/air mixture and go off with a very big bang with building crushing overpressures.

SoCalBusted's picture

Yes.  Note in this case the gas has already been odorized with mercaptan.  I assume that it increases the density.  Another factor is that due to the geography and weather, inversions in the LA basin are common, so the gas may not merely float into the upper atmosphere as it would in free space.

Squirrel Tooth Alice's picture

Even odorized, it is lighter than air and disperses quickly. A temperature inversion will not change those two facts.