Southern California Gas Co. said Monday that it has abandoned efforts to trap and burn the gas released by a huge natural gas leak in Los Angeles, but also said the 12-week-old leak should be stopped ahead of schedule — by the end of February or sooner.
The burn-off plan is being abandoned over fears that it could not be done safely, SoCalGas, which is owned by Sempra Energy, said in a statement. State regulators had been scheduled to vote Wednesday on the plan, which had been intended to give quicker relief to residents suffering sickness and irritation because of the emissions but led to worries of explosions in the Porter Ranch neighborhood where the well is located.
“We do not feel the benefits outweigh the safety risks,” company senior vice president Jimmie Cho told KPCC. “I’m not going to take any unnecessary safety risks.”
The plan was in three parts, collecting the gas in an open pipe positioned above the broken well, shunting it to a high-tech oven where the methane would be incinerated, and filtering what remains through a deep bed of charcoal.
Collecting the methane through an open pipe that was not securely connected to the wellhead was the risky part of the plan, Cho told KPCC. The risk was that the methane – which is safe from ignition at very low and very high concentrations – might combine with air or other compounds and become more volatile.
The Public Utilities Commission sent a letter to SoCal Gas Monday (which you can read below) saying that if the gas collection risk could not be reduced, the plan should be abandoned.
According to the SoCalGas statement, a relief well that the company began drilling in early December should reach the bottom of the 8,500-foot-deep well by late February or sooner, at which time it will be permanently taken out of service, the Associated Press reports.
Earlier estimates had put the date sometime in March.
The company released a video explaining the process, noting that it is in Phase 5.
The company says recent estimates show a more than 60 percent reduction in emissions from the well since its November peak, and that benzene levels are at the same level in the Porter Ranch area of the leak than they are in other areas of Los Angeles.
Alexandra Nagy, a Southern California representative of consumer advocates Food & Water Watch, which has been critical of the handling of the leak, said the new estimate is not to be trusted.
“It doesn’t give much comfort to me, and I don’t think it’ll give much comfort to the residents,” Nagy said. “They’ve been misleading since the beginning.”
Residents of Porter Ranch have complained about nausea, headaches, nosebleeds and other symptoms that have persisted since the leak at the Aliso Canyon storage field, the largest facility of its kind west of the Mississippi River, was reported Oct. 23.
By the end of December the company had spent some $50 million in its efforts to stop the leak and mitigate its effects, and Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency over its emissions.
Messages left with environmental groups and organizations of residents who have been critical of the utility were not immediately returned Monday.