Environment & Science

One year later: How the Aliso Canyon gas blowout continues to affect LA

The boundary of Southern California Gas Company property, where Aliso Canyon Storage Field is located, is seen as people continue to be affected by a massive natural-gas leak in the Porter Ranch neighborhood on Dec. 22, 2015.
The boundary of Southern California Gas Company property, where Aliso Canyon Storage Field is located, is seen as people continue to be affected by a massive natural-gas leak in the Porter Ranch neighborhood on Dec. 22, 2015.
David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

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Sunday marks one year since Southern California Gas Co. discovered that one of its aging wells near Porter Ranch had ruptured, touching off the nation's largest uncontrolled escape of natural gas into the atmosphere.    

The leak was plugged after four months, but the blowout and its aftermath shook the trust Angelenos placed in the utility that provides gas for home cooking and heating. It also brought harsh scrutiny of  state and local regulators that were slow to act to the leak. And it undermined the sense of security that our energy sources were stable and reliable.
    
Based on interviews with residents, state energy experts, environmentalists, regulators and government officials, here is a portrait of how the Aliso Canyon gas well blowout has changed Los Angeles, California and the nation. Southern California Gas Co. declined requests to make an executive available for an interview about its year grappling with the fallout from the gas leak.

Is the worst over? Are people still getting sick?

In the days after the leak started, people in Porter Ranch began complaining of nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness and nausea that they attributed to the fumes coming from the leak that spewed uncontrollably for four months. Tens of thousands of residents fled the community and relocated to temporary housing. The well was plugged in mid-Feburary.

During that time, some 200 people a month reported the symptoms above, respiratory illnesses and other problems to the county Department of Public Health. 

In the month after the leak was plugged, the county Public Health Department said two-thirds of the people it surveyed in the area about their health were still experiencing similar symptoms they had when the leak was active. Even now, months after the leak, about 20 to 50 people per month are reporting symptoms to the health department.

Christine Soderlund is a Porter Ranch resident whose family was sickened by the four-month gas leak from the nearby Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility.
Christine Soderlund is a Porter Ranch resident whose family was sickened by the four-month gas leak from the nearby Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility.
Sharon McNary


"We're still getting headaches, there's still periodic bloody noses that my kids get," said Porter Ranch resident Christine Soderlund.  "I'm trying to document all of this but there is a bit of a fog when you're having this methane exposure."
    
She checks an online website showing readings from methane monitors placed around the gas field fence line and says it sometimes shows higher than normal concentrations.
    
Despite the ongoing illnesses, she said she can't afford to leave now. She chose Porter Ranch for the schools at a time when the areas big houses were still pretty affordable, and she expects to stay a few more years. She can't find that combination in an affordable place now.
    
Others sold their homes and moved away, some a few miles away, others said they were moving out of state to Idaho, Georgia and North Carolina.
    
While home prices have remained stable, some residents say prices have not gone up at the same pace as other houses in non-leak areas. They also report that homes closest to the gas storage field sit on the market unsold.
    
Soderlund sais a schism has formed between those who say they are still getting sick from emissions from the field and those who did not get sick and want to put this incident in the rear view mirror.
    
"To hear that people thought that individuals in Porter Ranch were making up symptoms, or not truly suffering, was really surprising to me especially because some of these people were on the outskirts of Porter Ranch, and literally live in the same zip code," she said.

Soderlund said some neighbors and people from outside the community expect families like hers to be in line for a windfall by suing SoCal Gas.  She has not retained a lawyer or sued, and is ambivalent about it. She's about $5,000 out of pocket from mileage and other relocation expenses that were not reimbursed by the company.

The legal fallout of this incident will go on for years, with all the cases combined in a single mega-case before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to sort it all out.  So far some 14,000 individuals have retained attorneys to sue SoCal Gas for damages.  Those who have not sued have up to two years to make a claim. As many as 50,000 people and many businesses could be included among the class action plaintiffs.
    
One of the main issues is a lack of knowledge about what came out of the ruptured well.

"As of today, we don't know what was leaking, we don't know what tests were performed, they weren't forthcoming with information," Soderlund said of SoCal Gas.

"Had they brought people up there, and showed them what they were doing and let people know this was going to be safer, cleaner, more efficient and effective than ever, then the community might have figured out a way to rally around them," she said. "But it's been smoke and mirrors types of activity up there."

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has sued SoCal Gas in an effort to get the company to pay for a long term health study of residents in the Porter Ranch area. The company had offered to perform a limited health assessment at a cost of $250,000 to $400,000, but it balked at the AQMD request for a more expensive and thoroughgoing study.

How much gas escaped and how much damage did it do to the environment?

The California Air Resources Board released its final estimate Friday, saying that about 99,650 metric tons of gas was released into the atmosphere, plus or minus about ten percent. The agency said it would require SoCal Gas to pay for programs to capture the upper range of the gas that was lost, or 109,000 metric tons.

That amount, CARB spokesman Stanley Young, was enough natural gas to heat 190,000 Los Angeles homes over a typical year.

In previous months, SoCal Gas had contended that it released about 14 percent less gas than the 94,500 metric tons the state had estimated. Company officials were reviewing the new numbers, spokesman Chris Gilbride said Friday.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that traps much more heat than even carbon dioxide. CARB says the amount of methane released is about the same amount of carbon pollution as burning more than one billion  gallons of gasoline. The previous estimate put the methane loss at equivalent to burning about 916,000 gallons of gasoline.

The methane released is about 6 percent of California's annual methane load, according to CARB.

Aside from individual lawsuits and the DA's fines, what is being done to make SoCal Gas pay for the damage to the atmosphere?

This is where the estimate of the methane release matters because it will determine the amount of methane or its carbon equivalent that SoCal Gas will have to capture from other methane polluting sources. The state Air Resources Board wants SoCal Gas to pay for projects to capture as much methane as it released in the gas well blowout.

SoCal Gas says it is in talks with several dairy and cattle operations in the state's central valley to install methane capture systems. Cattle and dairy farms are among the biggest sources of methane in California. But some local officials prefer that any mitigation projects be focused within the L.A. Basin. Scientists say it doesn't matter where you do the mitigation.

The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.
The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

  
Is our region back on a stable energy footing or are we still at risk for rolling blackouts due to a scarce gas supply?

The gas supply remains low, which means that on very hot or very cold periods, the region could experience power outages or drops in gas service.

The Aliso Canyon underground gas reservoir has been emptied down to 15 billion cubic feet, about one-fifth of its normal capacity. SoCal Gas has been barred from injecting gas underground there until all the wells it wants to use have gone through extensive inspections. SoCal Gas says 27 of its 114 wells have been tested and could be used to refill the gas field, but there is still a lot of state inspecting to be done, plus a public hearing about whether it should go back online.
    
State energy experts had predicted we could see up to 14 days of rolling power outages on the hottest days of summer due to scarce gas supplies. That did not come to pass, for a lot of different reasons.
    
First, it was a cool summer, so demand for power from gas-fired electrical plants was not as high. Also, the state told big gas customers like power plants and refineries to be far more precise when ordering gas each day, and that helped stretch supplies.

Consumers cooperated with requests to save energy. New power sources from renewable sources of energy came online, and that also improved the energy picture. The state has also pressed utilities to increase the amount of energy they can store, using batteries, hydroelectric dams.
    
Environmentalists dismissed the prediction of outages as scare talk to pressure officials into letting SoCal Gas reopen the Aliso Canyon gas reservoir.
    
With Aliso Canyon still offline, the concern shifts from summer worries of not enough gas for power plants to the fall and winter caution that there might not be enough gas to heat individual homes and businesses. Expect to hear lots of gas-saving messages during cold snaps.

For the Aliso Canyon field to come back online, its wells must undergo extensive inspections, and pass a state list of requirements. The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, called DOGGR, issued an extensive new checklist of tasks Friday. Once the state certifies the field to be satisfactory, a public hearing would be held before a decision made to reopen it.

What did the Aliso Canyon gas leak reveal about how the government is managing this kind of gas storage facility?    

Official after official calls the Aliso Canyon catastrophe a wake-up call that pulled back the curtain to reveal a fractured regulatory structure. Several agencies each had a different piece of the oversight puzzle, and often they were not coordinated in their approach.
    
The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources called DOGGR oversees wells at natural gas storage facilities. The agency was in the midst of leadership changes and a proposed overhaul of regulation of wells at the time the Aliso Canyon well broke. The agency had long been criticized for being too close to the industry it was supposed to be regulating, and for having outdated and incomplete records of wells. DOGGR has proposed new regulations that would require much stricter monitoring and mandatory subsurface safety valves on wells.

The state Public Utilities Commission regulates the equipment above ground and sets the utility's rates, profit margins and repair budgets. That agency survived a legislative proposal to disband that was, in part, inspired by the Aliso Canyon leak, plus earlier disasters like the San Bruno gas explosion.

Los Angeles County oversaw  land use restrictions for the gas field on unincorporated land that butts up to the border of Los Angeles where the City Council approved tracts with thousands of new homes that are still being built.
    
The federal Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration oversees pipelines and has long held the authority to regulate underground gas storage fields like Aliso Canyon. But it ceded that authority to the state and DOGGR. As a result of the Aliso Canyon gas leak, federal officials are, for the first time, recommending rules for gas storage fields in every state.

CPUC President Michael Picker said the Aliso Canyon disaster helped accelerate that board's cooperation with DOGGR and other agencies that have a role in overseeing the gas storage field.

Most regulation of gas fields had focused on avoiding fire, so the wells were required to be several hundred feet  from homes. But safety regulations do not  recognize hazards that could come from a large leak of methane to homes miles away. The well that broke was about 1.5 miles from the nearest homes, yet thousands of people relocated away from Porter Ranch to get away from the smell of the natural gas and its potentially unhealthful effects.

How has SoCal Gas fared?

Not great. First, there has been a management shake-up.

The president and CEO of SoCal Gas, Dennis Arriola, is stepping down from that job at the end of this year, going over to manage corporate strategy at parent company Sempra Energy.

Moving up into his place as president is Chief Operating Officer Bret Lane. His testimony to the Public Utilities Commission from a few years ago was quoted a lot because he was laying out information about how badly and frequently SoCal Gas wells around L.A. were leaking.

Despite several requests over two weeks, SoCal Gas did not make Lane or another executive available for an interview.

The company has been savaged by a range of politicians representing the area including Supervisor Mike Antonovich, Congressman Brad Sherman, Councilman Mitch Englander. They have complained about the company's slow response to the leak, its failure to inform local officials about it early in the leak, and they've criticized the company for letting wells and equipment at the gas field deteriorate.

District Attorney Jackie Lacey's office also got involved, bringing misdemeanor criminal charges against the company.

"Our office's response to it is a way to deter and encourage corporate responsibility in this area," Lacey said.

SoCal Gas pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor criminal charge last month over the delayed notification that could cost it $4 million to resolve. In failing to notify authorities, the District Attorney's environmental crimes rollout team was delayed getting to the leak by several days, and evidence and witnesses could have been missed, Lacey said. That settlement has been challenged by residents involved in lawsuits against SoCal Gas who allege they had a right to receive restitution in the plea deal.

The county Department of Public Health also struggled with SoCal Gas while the leak was active and afterwards to get the company to cooperate. Public Health executive Angelo Bellomo called the company recalcitrant.

"That's really evidenced in their unwillingness to implement directives that were given to them by the health department and others who were concerned about getting this information quickly and in responding with a due level of urgency," Bellomo said.

The company was slow to relocate people affected by the leak. It pushed back on requests for samples of what was coming out of the broken well, and it has challenged the county's directive to clean thousands of homes in court, Bellomo said.

The financial burden of the leak added up quickly. The cost of attacking the leak, relocating thousands of families and reimbursing for other losses was at $717 million in July, and is likely to climb when the company makes its next quarterly report in November. Most of those costs have been covered by insurance. But the amount has already surpassed the book value of the Aliso Canyon gas field itself, according to company SEC filings.

Those costs do not include an estimate of what the company might have to pay in lawsuit settlements or verdicts. The company has been sued by the state Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management Board, the state Department of Conservation and DOGGR, and the city and county of Los Angeles. Most of the lawsuits contend negligence and bad business practices.

The frequency of public protests is down, one year after the leak, however, a couple dozen residents can be counted on to show up at public meetings and hold rallies calling for the Aliso Canyon gas field to be shut down.

Mark Ghilarducci, head of the state Office of Emergency Services, said  he's tired of getting "lip service" from big utilities like SoCal Gas about why they let their equipment deteriorate and why they're caught flatfooted when things go wrong.

"It infuriates me that there could be some cavalierness on the part of the utilities sort of thinking that, well, I can't get to everything, or deal with it when it happens or there's enough insurance. Hey, that doesn't cut it with me," he said.

For example, the state created a unified command over the leak, and tasked the county Fire Department and SoCal Gas with authority to make statements to the media. The county fire official in charge ceded the job of describing the leak stop efforts to SoCal Gas, which gave very little detail about the incident while the leak was active.

The company did pay to have a roundtable of community and homeowner groups called Porter Ranch Community Advisory Committee meet weekly during the four months of the leak. Some of the more detailed information about the incident surfaced there under often hostile questioning of resident leaders. Those meetings were streamed live, but the locations of the meetings were not well-publicized. Also SoCal Gas executives declined to be interviewed by reporters they encountered at those sessions. That group has been disbanded, and the company has formed a new group of homeowners and stakeholders called Aliso Canyon Community Advisory Committee.

Can the L.A. region really get along without the Aliso Canyon gas storage field?

Environmentalists with groups like Consumer Watchdog,  the Environmental Defense Fund and Food & Water Watch say the region can survive without the big storage reservoir reopening. They say the fact that power producers got through the summer with no power outages was a critical test.

Local power plants were ordered by the state Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission to undertake 18 energy-saving measures.

The gas leak made clear that Southern California had become reliant on natural gas and to certain degree undisciplined in how much it used, unlike big users in places out-of-state that don't have big storage reservoirs of gas nearby. With so much natural gas stored underground at Aliso Canyon, big users like refineries and power plants could be fairly imprecise in how much they ordered. If they asked for too much, the excess could be held underground, and if they didn't ask for enough, they could draw it from storage.

Most of the nation doesn't work that way. There are only about 400 underground gas storage fields nationwide.

Top energy officials say they can envision a Los Angeles without Aliso Canyon, but not just yet.

"In order to evolve the system to a different operational model, it'll take time, so I think the answer is yes, given enough time," said Eric Schmitt, vice president for operations at California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state's power grid.

The Los Angeles City Council, post-leak, passed a resolution requiring the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to evaluate how the city might some day move to 100 percent clean energy.

"Aliso Canyon helped facilitate these discussions to advance exploring and think how we could achieve a fossil-free future," said Mike Webster, who oversees power operations for LADWP.

Is there a silver lining to the natural gas disaster? What good has come of this?
    
One lesson of the catastrophe is how long it took for the public, government and media to understand how serious this leak was. Part of that is due to the reluctance of SoCal Gas to admit it had a big problem and alert the local authorities.
    
Alexandra Nagy, an organizer with Food & Water Watch, had been working in the Porter Ranch community to oppose new oil well drilling by the Termo company on the Aliso Canyon gas field site when the leak occurred Oct. 23. She said it took several weeks for officials to realize the problem was serious.
    
"When we were calling elected officials, they would have the gas company call people back," she said. "I think people just didn't understand what was going on."
    
The state did not declare an emergency until early January. The experience of dealing with the gas blowout adds real-world insights to the local and state emergency playbook to perhaps help them intervene earlier if something similar happens again.

Executives at several energy and regulatory agencies agree that the natural gas emergency pushed them to accelerate new rules concerning methane escaping into the atmosphere and to push utilities like SoCal Gas to more carefully monitor its operations.

The region's energy and industrial architecture was built up around this assumption that gas supplies would be plentiful, and the state Public Utility Commission and others never made plans for the day when the storage at Aliso Canyon might be unavailable. Even the National Laboratory at Los Alamos concluded in a study of energy reliability that the Aliso Canyon gas storage field was the linchpin to the region's stable power supply.

Now, public figures like Mayor Eric Garcetti and a top energy executive at LADWP are saying this catastrophe makes it clear that the region needs to do more to wean itself off of fossil fuels.

Also, the county's public health experts have a more detailed protocol for how to respond to an environmental crisis.

What came out of the ruptured well that could have been making people sick?

Residents sickened by the gas leak and who are still experiencing symptoms are also upset by the apparent secrecy over what came out of the well. Some components are well-known. Natural gas has methane, ethane and the chemical mercaptans to add a bad smell so it can be detected.

But there's another dimension to the pollution that still seems to be a big unknown -- What was in the "kill fluids" the company and its contractors pumped into the well to stop the leak. They made eight attempts to plug the well between October and mid-December, and the pressure was so high in the reservoir that it blew those muds right back out as a fine aerosol that left black droplets on cars, patios and playgrounds all over Porter Ranch.
    
SoCal Gas spokeswoman Melissa Bailey said this week that the company gave a sample of the fluids to the unified command overseeing the leak, a group that includes County Fire and the Department of Public Health.
    
Angelo Bellomo, of the county Public Health Department,  said they did receive data on the drilling muds used, but that SoCal Gas did not cooperate in providing a sample of the substances actually being blown out of the well at high pressure.
    
"During the peak period of the release, in order to assess potential exposures, the information most needed is what was ejected out," Bellomo said in a email statement to KPCC.  "Because the storage facility is a depleted oilfield,  oil residuals, in addition to natural gas components and drilling muds/kill fluids, were likely ejected under high pressure during the period of active release."
    
The Department of Public Health directed SoCal Gas during the leak to expand air monitoring to include a wide range of the potential chemicals and substances coming out of the well.

Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, speaks during a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that has forced residents from their homes.
Angelo Bellomo, deputy director for health protection with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, speaks during a public health meeting at Porter Ranch Community School on Thursday evening, May 19, 2016 following a fall 2015 gas leak that has forced residents from their homes.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"But they pushed back and we missed data on this full range of contaminants in air during the peak period of the release. We got a watered down version of what was requested, and later than needed," Bellomo said.
   

"The nature of this incident was unprecedented in scale and demanded monitoring for a wide range of chemicals in order to understand what could be responsible for the type of symptoms experience by residents."

    
Plaintiffs attorneys say they have not yet found out what was in those drilling muds because their cases are still in the early stages.

Oct. 21, 2016 -- This story has been updated to add the state's new estimate of methane released during the leak.