Monday marks two years since a gas well near Porter Ranch was discovered to be leaking methane and other chemicals, growing to become a four-month blowout and the nation’s largest known accidental release of natural gas.
Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility is back in operation. At the same time, efforts continue to shut down the field. That's even though the gas operation is limited – the underground reservoir may be filled to only one-third of its previous capacity and withdrawals are limited to those necessary to prevent shortages of natural gas . But even that is too much for neighbors who want to see the three-thousand acre gas field closed forever.
Among those objecting to the gas field is Issam Najm, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council. He's an engineer with expertise in testing water for toxic chemicals, but despite that technical background, he never paid much attention to the Aliso Canyon storage field.
"I was a member of the silent majority for a long time," Najm said, reflecting on his life in the Porter Ranch bedroom community before the leak. "I was one who got up early in the morning and went to work and came home in the evening."
But then an aging well known as SS-25 ruptured. Porter Ranch residents first noticed the smell October 23, 2015. The natural gas put an acrid stink in the air and drove thousands of families from their homes to get away from methane, and other chemicals whose identities remain unknown.
Najm himself was not greatly affected by the leak, but he relocated his wife and daughters because they were experiencing headaches.
Over the four months that the leak was active, the community was in turmoil, trying to understand the health and public safety risk they faced. It was during that time that Najm became more active in the community, using his technical background to demand data from officials and the company and to focus on the right questions to ask during the rare times when company
"I either complain about it, or try to throw my hat in the ring and do something about it," he said.
Today, Najm is president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, a group of elected stakeholders who advise the city of Los Angeles on important local issues.
"We need to work toward closure of this facility because it is a threat to public health and a threat to the welfare of the community," he said, quoting the elected group's official position.
But the Aliso gas field is not closed. It resumed injecting gas underground in July.
Najm said his biggest concern for community safety is whether the gas field’s 114 aging wells could withstand a sizeable earthquake.
"In the seismic zone that exists, there is a very good potential for them to be ruptured in an (earthquake) event and therefore we go back to the uncontrolled release of gas into the environment without any end in sight," he said.
The Aliso Gas field covers more than 3,000 acres of the Santa Susana Mountains that rise just north of the Porter Ranch tracts of homes. Scattered across the mountains are concrete pads, each with a well. Those 114 wells, average age of about 60 years, are steel tubes that extend down through the earth to a depleted oil reservoir about 8,000 to 9,000 feet. The wells all pass through the Santa Susana Fault at about 800 feet to 3,000 feet, depending on the wells' location on the mountains.
The fear that an earthquake could set off further major gas releases is shared by many Porter Ranch and nearby residents, including hundreds who packed into a hearing about the gas field reopening last February.
They applauded Los Angeles County Fire Department Assistant Chief Walter Uroff when he told the crowd a seismic study should be completed before gas is injected into the field.
But that study has not been done. SoCal Gas, state gas regulators and experts at the Berkeley, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories agree that a seismic study should be done, but it wasn’t so urgent as to delay the field resuming operations.
Geologist Thom Davis has spent much of his career studying the Santa Susana Fault underneath the gas field. He did work for SoCal Gas on and off over a dozen years ending in 2012, converting paper well drilling records into a digital model showing the underground fault.
The portion of the fault that runs under the gas field is unseen, obscured by old landslides. But it’s capable of a magnitude 7 earthquake, he said. Hiking up a steep road in the Antonovich Regional Park west of the gas field, he points out the west end of the Santa Susana Fault where it breaks through the surface.
Davis said a big earthquake on the fault is a low probability during the lifetime of the gas field, but if one did occur, the ground movement and damage to wells could be significant.
"That upper block that we're on right now would move several meters and so any of these wells that are coming from the surface down, and cutting the fault, they would be sheared by this fault movement," Davis said. "In the matter of minutes you have numerous wells sheared and releasing gas," Davis said.
The gas is stored under high pressure. Before the leak, it was held at about 100 times as much pressure as you’d pump into your car tire. That pressure is less now because the volume in the field is less. But if the wells were sheared, the gas could vent up to the surface through the porous rock that’s above the fault line.
"Or around the old wells, that's what happened with SS-25 it actually came up around the casing," Davis said, referring to the well that failed in 2015.
From there, the gas would evaporate skyward, unless it ignited.
Davis, who has worked in the oil and gas industry, says installing shutoff valves near the bottom of each well, far underground, would be his recommendation.
SoCal Gas declined to be interviewed for this report. The company says it’s already provided plenty of information. In the past company officials have said subsurface shutoff valves don’t always work.
In past comments, company spokespersons have said the overhaul of the wells after the blowout has resulted in Aliso Canyon being the safest, and best-monitored gas field. It says that resumption of operations are necessary for energy reliability in the greater Los Angeles area, even though the investigation of the cause of the well rupture is not finished.
Issam Najm, the Porter Ranch resident who heads up the elected neighborhood council, says he’s disappointed the health consequences of the gas well blowout have not been better studied. Nor has the company fully explained what chemicals blasted out of the ruptured well and settled on homes. The uncertainties have become too much for some.
"What people don't see is that many families have basically picked up and gone somewhere else," Najm said.
Two years after the blowout, Najm is frustrated that his and others’ activism has not brought the gas field much closer to being completely shut down.
"Representatives of the people should be working towards the welfare of the people and it shouldn't be it shouldn't feel be hard but that's that's how it feels," he said.
The governor has set a ten-year target to close the Aliso Canyon gas field. Najm wants closure to come about far more quickly.
Southern California Gas Co. and the governmental agencies it deals with have much unfinished business to accomplish before the environmental disaster known as the Aliso Canyon gas leak can truly be put behind them. Here are some of the biggest issues remaining:
Mitigate greenhouse gas -- The state Air Resources Board expects SoCal Gas to undertake projects that would capture the amount of methane (or its carbon equivalent) that was released over the four months that the leak was active. Will it be cattle-related methane capture in Central California, or something that costs more and is located closer to where the leak affected the population?
Seismic study – SoCal Gas, state regulators and experts at three national laboratories agree that a seismic study of the Aliso gas field is needed. It would be done by an independent third party and focus on the risk of an earthquake on the Santa Susana fault to the 114 wells that go through the fault, and to communities nearby.
SB380 study – The PUC has begun work on a study of the feasibility of minimizing or closing the Aliso gas field. It was required by the Legislature under SB380, a law passed last year. The study would focus on energy reliability for the region, but not on health issues or the damage done to the community from the well blowout. It could be completed as early as mid-2018.
Health Study – SoCal Gas’ $8.5 million settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District included $1 million for a health study. County Department of Public Health wants a bigger study, one costing $35 to $40 million to assess the health effects of the gas leak.
Governor ordered study – The Governor’s 2016 emergency order calls for an independent panel of scientific and medical experts to review public health concerns stemming from the the blowout and determining whether added measures are needed to protect public health.
Determine future operation level – Right now, the underground reservoir is allowed to hold only about 23 billion cubic feet of gas, which is about one-third of its previous capacity. It's not permitted to drop the gas held in storage below about 14 billion cubic feet, which is the minimum amount a state panel of experts determine is necessary to ensure the region would not run short of gas on a very hot or very cold day.
Other Challenges to the Aliso gas field
Investigations – These agencies investigated the blowout: California Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, L.A County Department of Public Health, South Coast Air Quality Management Board, California Air Resources Board. L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, Cal-Occupational Safety and Health Administration, California Public Utilities Commission, U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and the state Attorney General.
The company has paid more than $13 million after it reached settlements of a criminal complaint by the District Attorney, and a complaint by the AQMD.
Government lawsuits - Los Angeles County sued SoCal Gas alleging the company’s four gas fields in L.A. County need safety upgrades including sub surface safety shut-off valves. California Attorney General sued on behalf of CARB joined with the L.A. City Attorney office over the gas emissions.
Los Angeles County sued DOGGR and PUC, with SoCal Gas as a real party in interest. That lawsuit challenges the July 2017 resumption of injections of gas into the storage field before the root cause analysis was completed, failing to make safety review documents available to the public and failing to address the seismic risk as part of the safety review. Trial and appeal courts denied the county’s efforts to halt the injections, but the case remains open.
Non-government lawsuits - The company faces 281 lawsuits including more than 25,500 plaintiffs just in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Many of these are personal injury and negligence claims. There is also a case alleging violation of California’s Prop. 65. Those cases have been combined into a coordinated case before the same Superior Court judge and will take a lot of time and possibly money to resolve.
Two class actions have been filed against SoCal Gas and Sempra, one over property loss and the second on behalf of businesses and business people who live near the gas field. The two companies also face federal class actions by shareholders alleging violation of federal securities laws.