The Company Behind LA's Methane Disaster Knew Its Well Was Leaking 24 Years Ago

Tyler Durden's picture

Authored by Melissa Cronin, originally posted at MotherBoard,

Last fall, a 7-inch injection well pipe ruptured 500 feet below the surface of Los Angeles, after ferrying natural gas for six decades. The resulting methane leak is now being called one of the largest environmental disasters since the BP oil spill, has pushed thousands of people out of their homes, and has quickly become the single biggest contributor to climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions in California. But it's not the first time this well sprang a leak—and Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which owns and operates the well, knew it.

Over the past three months, engineers have had a terrifically difficult time plugging the leak. Normally in the case of a methane leak, a column of fluid would be pumped down into the well, to stem its tide. But with this particular well, that hasn’t been working. Instead, workers must drill down to the base of the well, 8,000 feet underground, creating a relief well to relieve the incredibly high pressure of the leak. Only then can the leak be repaired safely.

So who’s to blame for a leak that cannot be stopped? Aging natural gas equipment may have contributed. According to documents filed with the California Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, this particular well, referred to as Standard Sesnon 25, was originally drilled in 1953, and showed signs of leakage 24 years ago, in 1992. Inspectors reported that they could hear the leak through borehole microphones.

Gene Nelson, a professor of physical science at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California who has seen the document, said that he found it “appalling that SoCalGas did not identify this as a well to shut off,” after receiving this feedback.

There have been other problems documented at this facility before. And in 2014, inspectors at the wells documented corrosion and negative integrity trends.

In 2013, SoCalGas applied for and received money to do upgrades on equipment like safety valves—money that the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) says should have been used to prevent a leak like this. The regulatory decision filing shows that SoCalGas was granted $898,000 per year (in addition to the regular fund of about $3 million per year for repairs) to replace 5 percent of its safety valves at Aliso Canyon. According to EDF, these extra funds weren’t used as they should have been—to prevent a leak of this magnitude.

In 2014, written testimony to the California Public Utilities Commission by SoCalGas Director of Storage Operations Phillip Baker documented corrosion and negative integrity trends in the aging pipeline.

“Without a new inspection plan, SoCalGas and customers could experience major failures and service interruptions from potential hazards that currently remain undetected,” he wrote. The filing also noted that as of 2014, half of the company’s 229 storage wells were over 57 years old, and 52 wells were more than 70 years old.


“The company should be holding themselves to highest standard of care,” said Tim O’Connor, Director of California oil and gas for EDF, adding that SoCal should have had emergency plans in place to prevent long-term leaks from occurring. “This leak is a symptom of a larger issue—aging oil and gas infrastructure. We just don’t have a system to properly deal with storage leaks yet.”

Other safety issues have been pointed out recently, too. Earlier this month, The LA Times reported that attorneys representing some of the 1,000 residents suing SoCalGas over the leak claim the company failed to replace an important safety valve that was removed in 1979—a valve that could have stopped the current leak in its tracks. The plaintiffs also allege that the company again identified leaks at the site five years ago, but never implemented plans to fix them.

When pressed about the age of the pipes and the safety history of the well, a spokesperson for Sempra Utilities, the company that owns SoCalGas, said that the company performs daily well checks, and that this well had passed its last inspection:

Over time, the technology to monitor and operate underground gas storage field has developed steadily, and our facilities are at the forefront of safety controls and procedures. In addition, all our operations are closely monitored for compliance with the safety standards of the California Public Utilities Commission, the Division of Oil and Gas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and local fire departments.

Now, three months after the pipe first burst, Gov. Jerry Brown has proclaimed a state of emergency in California. The declaration grants the state more powers to oversee the response, gives more authority to health officials, forces the utility to maximize its gas withdrawals, and ramps up safety inspections at the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility in Porter Ranch—a neighborhood of Los Angeles where over 100,000 pounds of methane are now being pumped into California’s air every hour. The proclamation will likely allow more funds to be diverted to assist in cleanup efforts, and creates an independent panel to assess what went wrong with the leak and to assess its impact on human health.

Leak site. Image: Earthworks

Dennis Arriola, president and CEO of the Southern California Gas Company, which owns the Aliso facility, issued a statement saying that the company “has been communicating with the Governor’s Office and other state agencies from the outset….[and] reaffirms our prior commitment to mitigate the environmental impact of the actual amount of natural gas released from the leak.”

Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University and an expert in the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, called the Porter Ranch leak “spectacularly large,” adding that it is likely adding 5 percent to the total amount of methane leaked by the entire US oil and gas industry right now. (Natural gas consists primarily of methane, which constantly leaks, in much smaller amounts, from oil and gas fields around the nation.) What’s more, says Howarth, the methane is incredibly sticky—meaning, it’s going to stay in the atmosphere.


“Once the methane is in the air, it will be there for 10-plus years until it is chemically converted to carbon dioxide and methane,” said Howarth. “ We cannot do anything about that to speed its loss up. And during those 10-plus years, it is more than 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide.”

In other words, the methane coming out of this leak is catastrophically worse for the climate than the pollution we pump into the atmosphere from cars and planes and trains every day.

So far, some 2,300 homes have voluntarily evacuated and several schools have been closed, with many residents complaining of headaches and nosebleeds from the foul-smelling chemical additives. These include radon, hydrogen sulfide, and an odorant called mercaptan, which is added to the gas both before and after it leaves the storage field.

The well, which funnels natural gas to 22 million customers in the Los Angeles Basin, is expected to take another three months to plug. O’Connor says that the disaster is a telling sign about the viability of natural gas in a country of aging infrastructure.

“We need to take a hard look at whether we can prevent these types of leaks,” he said, adding that smaller methane leaks at oil and gas facilities happen frequently. “These problems fly below the radar until catastrophes happen—and a catastrophe has just happened.”


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hedgeless_horseman's picture



In earthquake country, the only thing worse than storing explosive gas in underground reservoirs, is storing spent nuclear fuel in onsite Fukushima pools, like at Diablo Canyon.

Yucca Mountain, which is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste for any period of time. I am proud that after more than two decades of fighting the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, the project has finally been terminated.

Fuck you, Harry Reid!!!

hedgeless_horseman's picture



This natural gas leak is nothing compared to Fukushima.

"...90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, is simply not a safe or secure site to store nuclear waste for any period of time."


                                   -Senator Harry Reid

Do any of you live within 90 miles of these operating nuclear plants where we are storing nuclear waste?

Arkansas Nuclear 1
Arkansas Nuclear 2
Beaver Valley 1
Beaver Valley 2
Braidwood 1
Braidwood 2
Browns Ferry 1
Browns Ferry 2
Browns Ferry 3
Brunswick 1
Brunswick 2
Byron 1
Byron 2
Calvert Cliffs 1
Calvert Cliffs 2
Catawba 1
Catawba 2
Columbia Generating Station
Comanche Peak 1
Comanche Peak 2
D.C. Cook 1
D.C. Cook 2
Diablo Canyon 1
Diablo Canyon 2
Dresden 2
Dresden 3
Duane Arnold
Farley 1
Farley 2
Fermi 2
Fort Calhoun
Grand Gulf 1
Harris 1
Hatch 1
Hatch 2
Hope Creek 1
Indian Point 2
Indian Point 3
La Salle 1
La Salle 2
Limerick 1
Limerick 2
McGuire 1
McGuire 2
Millstone 2
Millstone 3
Nine Mile Point 1
Nine Mile Point 2
North Anna 1
North Anna 2
Oconee 1
Oconee 2
Oconee 3
Oyster Creek
Palo Verde 1
Palo Verde 2
Palo Verde 3
Peach Bottom 2
Peach Bottom 3
Perry 1
Pilgrim 1
Point Beach 1
Point Beach 2
Prairie Island 1
Prairie Island 2
Quad Cities 1
Quad Cities 2
River Bend 1
Robinson 2
Saint Lucie 1
Saint Lucie 2
Salem 1
Salem 2
Seabrook 1
Sequoyah 1
Sequoyah 2
South Texas 1
South Texas 2
Surry 1
Surry 2
Susquehanna 1
Susquehanna 2
Three Mile Island 1
Turkey Point 3
Turkey Point 4
Vogtle 1
Vogtle 2
Waterford 3
Watts Bar 1
Watts Bar 2
Wolf Creek 1

NoDebt's picture

I was talking with my brother about this last week.  He said they knew that thing was leaking for years, perhaps decades.  I threw the bullshit flag only because my brother has a tendency towards hyperbole.

I think I owe him an apology.

Wulfkind's picture

Good man, NoDebt.   And in the future, realize that Big Energy is no different....and in fact is part and parcel.....of Big Gov. and Big Finance.  If you always distrust Big Gov and Big Finance, then you should distrust Big Energy as well.  They're one and the same.

They're all a bunch of fucking liers.  Anything to keep from spending money while asklng for your tax dollars in the form of tax breaks.  This is how Florida pays for it.....not sure your state.   But in order to pay for the tax cuts to Big Business they hike our property tax.

Socialism for Big Business and Big Energy, a shit sandwich for us.

SuperRay's picture

Can SOMEBODY fucking go to jail, please?  Just once.

GhostOfDiogenes's picture
GhostOfDiogenes (not verified) NoDebt Jan 12, 2016 4:31 PM

" I threw the bullshit flag only because my brother has a tendency towards hyperbole.

I too have a shit head know it all brother as well like you.

I feel for your bro.

newdoobie's picture

Hey! I am that shit head know it all brother!

newdoobie's picture

If this empty cavern is used to store N. Gas for winter use. why don't they stop pumping gas into the cavern and pump it down?


Dick Buttkiss's picture

I live close to seven of them, but they're all TVA facilities and thus quasi-governmental. So no need to worry.

GhostOfDiogenes's picture
GhostOfDiogenes (not verified) hedgeless_horseman Jan 12, 2016 3:15 PM

That list is short and we are not "storing" any waste.

The .gov just dumped it.

There are other "secret" dumps the public jas zero knowledge of.

Wulfkind's picture

Probably dumped it in Flint, MI water supply.

bonin006's picture

I blame Bush for this. No, I am not being sarcastic. He could have rammed Yucca Mountain through, instead of the Iraq war, and actually had a positive legacy.

SuperRay's picture

Bush was a criminal of the highest order who was involved in the destruction of America through his involvement in 9/11.  That's that motherfucker's legacy.  WTFU!

PersonalResponsibility's picture

-signing in-


Jesus fucking christ.  Stick some dynamite down really deep and blast the fucker shut.  WTF!  Problem solved.  Fuck!

-signing out-

UrbanBard's picture

There is a flaw in the thinking of most environmentalists. Uranium came out of the ground, somewhere.  Why was it safe in the earth, originally? Because is wasn't concentrated.  Usually it was found in some god forsaken place. So, the Uranium did no one any harm.

How dangerous are the spent fuel rods? Not very, if they are surrounded by earth or rock to absorb the radiation. If the rods have been placed in water outside the power plants for ten years, they have a low enough radiation that they can be safely moved. The rods are placed in steel casks which can absorb the radiation. The casks are designed so that not even a high speed derailment can break them open. So, moving the rods to some location is safe. But, where?

If you think the rods are dangerous, where's the best place to put them? Do you want to store them outside our cities for the next thousand years? That is your choice.

Yucca mountain was designed to store this material for ten thousand years. There is no ground water which can be polluted. There is no local population which can be harmed by it. 90 miles from Los Vegas is fine, because Los Vegas is a location which produces nothing of value, anyway.

These rods can't explode. All they can do is quietly decay. in a 150 years, most of the short half life radiation is gone. If there is enough matter between you and the rods, then it is safe. Not even a major earthquake would do harm.

At least, Yucca Mountain is much safer than outside our biggest cities. Your choice is to keep them there or move them. Why aren't you scared about where the spent rods are now? Magic doesn't exist. You can't simply wish the rods away and the Environmentalists won't allow the rods to be processed.

armageddon addahere's picture

Spent fuel rods can be reused, and more energy got out of them than they produced the first time. The secret is the Thorium process. Thorium can be used in Candu reactors, but it is better to build new reactors specifically for Thorium.

With the Thorium process the fuel is so exhausted it is much safer and  requires much less storage time. Like 300 years instead of 25000.

SuperRay's picture

Uh because it was enriched?

Ignatius's picture

Plug it.  One would think that locating a large butt plug in and around Hollywood and LA wouldn't be a problem, and even if one had to travel to SF to source it it's a one day turnaround.

ZerOhead's picture

The money is not for plugging the well... that would be too practical.

"... a neighborhood of Los Angeles where over 100,000 pounds of methane are now being pumped into California’s air every hour. The proclamation will likely allow more funds to be diverted to assist in cleanup efforts,"

The money is for the lawyers who will be cleaning up.

If you don 't believe that then ask yourself this... "How does one go about cleaning up escaped methane out of the atmosphere?"


Well Lives Matter.

Don't be picking on a well just because it is old and leaking - it too, is a special snowflake.

nuubee's picture

It's been so boring in Southern California for a while, we had to manufacture our own man-made volcano.

E.F. Mutton's picture

1.  GTFO

2.  Light a match

3.  Profit!

ZerOhead's picture

Strangely that is probably the best thing to be doing right now.

The resulting tourism could really turn that town around... might even draw the Bohemian Grove Luciferians for their "Cremation of Care" ceremony in 2016.

Dr. Engali's picture

Clearly this calls for another agency for oversight because the other dozen or so are doing so well.

VladLenin's picture

Hey buddy, got a light?

LetThemEatRand's picture

When I fill up my car at the gas station, there is a sign telling me not to top off the tank to prevent leaking of fumes.   As usual, two different sets of rules.

SethDealer's picture

same here, I have water saver toilet that uses 50% les water but you have to flush it twice. Meantime the city has a water leak for 6 months leaking 100x what the citizens save

Ignatius's picture

I live in western Oregon and sometimes I go and flush my toilet for no reason at all other than to spite my cousins who live in sunny California.

VladLenin's picture

Just create a safe space nearby and they'll be ok for fucks sake.

Wulfkind's picture

Do like the Germans and keep the Methane out of arm's reach.  That....and pack a shit ton of Pepper Spray.

It couldn't hurt either if you wore a burqa around the methane.

Jason T's picture

XLE is having a rip your face off rally ...

MadVladtheconquerer's picture
MadVladtheconquerer (not verified) Jan 12, 2016 2:57 PM

So, methane is going to be chemically converted to methane.  I bet there is serious money to be made for a process that can accelerate that

conversion!  I am a chemist and that is the most fucking stupid statement I have ever read bar none.  Methane is usually converted to carbon

dioxide in the presence of a match and oxygen.  According to this research, uv radiation will convert the methane to CO2 as well:

if all else fails, resort to racemic lightning or speckled nitrogen.

MopWater's picture

Highly concentrated amounts of a highly flammable gas spewing into the atmosphere.

I would pay to see a lightning strike near there.

Apofigei's picture

Pretty sure, they meant converts methane to -carbon dioxide and water, but since it is just noise to non chemist, they cut and pasted methane to methane. Good catch though, I was laughing myslef.

WeTheSheeplez's picture

All it takes is 1 prove southern california is HELL...

silverer's picture

If leaky wells pass inspection, why bother to inspect?


Inspection fees, & cartel pricing, eh.

ZerOhead's picture

Don't forget the monkeys working for the government agencies that prevent these kind of leaks from happening. They also make sure that old mine sites are environmentally safe when they are not busy creating new clean-up jobs.


PBR Streetgang this is Almighty, over?

PBR Streetgang this is Almighty, over?

22winmag's picture

He was regular Army too.


I heard he shot himself in the head.

MadVladtheconquerer's picture
MadVladtheconquerer (not verified) MASTER OF UNIVERSE Jan 12, 2016 3:13 PM
Chuckster's picture

Jerry Brown can handle it.  That's why people voted for him.  Not that i think about it.....Brown and Merkel....the dream team.

jomama's picture

Those god forsaken socialist liberals in California are to blame for this!!

jomama's picture

Judging by the upvotes, some idiots actually believe this bullshit I just typed.

ToSoft4Truth's picture

Fly the drone in w/flare.  Fuck it.