On October, 23, 2015, a blowout occurred at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near the community of Porter Ranch, CA (population about 30,500) which resulted in a massive, unstoppable leak of methane and other toxic chemicals.
At first, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas, a division of Sempra Energy) claimed the gas was non-toxic and dissipated quickly. But within a week of exposure to the noxious fumes, residents reported gastrointestinal problems, nausea, nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, shortness of breath, burning eyes, sore throats, sick pets – all the classic symptoms of exposure to toxins from oil & gas operations.
The community group Save Porter Ranch quickly organized and called on Food & Water Watch to help them with an informal health survey in the community. The survey revealed a common complaint from residents about the smell of rotten eggs. Save Porter Ranch and Food & Water Watch were able to identify and expose methyl mercaptan as a toxin. Methyl mercaptan is the odorant that gives gas the rotten egg smell. They organized call-ins to elected officials and LA County Department of Public Health to report health problems.
On November 13, three weeks after the leak was first detected, SoCalGas tried to kill the well and failed. Their botched attempt resulted in an oily mist spewing from the gas well. A robocall through the community advised residents to stay indoors. Children were kept indoors at school. Residents were quarantined inside their homes. Save Porter Ranch and Food & Water Watch alerted local media and urged residents to step up their complaints to the health department. Eventually the LA County Department of Public Health acknowledged that mercaptan was causing serious health problems and ordered SoCalGas to provide free relocation assistance for anyone who requested it.
In spite of all their tireless efforts, Save Porter Ranch and Food & Water Watch could not convince the national media to pay attention to invisible air pollution. So they called on Earthworks. Southwest Circuit Rider, certified thermographer, and our good friend Pete Dronkers showed up in early December and gathered the first video evidence of the methane down drafting into Porter Ranch during the height of the spill. [One-minute video above. Click here to watch 5-minute video]
Earthworks first shared its videos of the disaster at a Porter Ranch community meeting on December 6 [click here to view the presentation on YouTube], and then released it to the news media. It was featured on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. Pete returned a couple weeks later and filmed aerial footage of the giant toxic plume, which the Environmental Defense Fund released through its YouTube page. He also got the first photos of the accident site itself, showing the giant hole where the blowout occurred.In his blog post about the blowout, Pete said: “This is, hands down, the largest volume of spewing methane gas I’ve ever seen — and I’ve visited nearly a hundred sites around the country, including the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.”
After Earthworks and EDF made the extent of the problem visible, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency. SoCalGas was required to compensate residents for their evacuations. More than 12,000 people have evacuated their homes and fled from the noxious plume of methane spreading across the San Fernando Valley, including nearly 2,000 students who have been forced to switch schools.
This week, the Aliso Canyon/Porter Ranch disaster passed the 90-day mark, surpassing the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was plugged after 87 days. In a press release on Monday, SoCalGas said they expect “to stop the leak by late February, if not sooner.” Yet with each passing day the Porter Ranch gas leak accounts for a staggering volume of climate pollution — accounting for up to a quarter of California’s daily greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s not only methane spewing from the blowout, but a host of toxic hitchhikers like benzene — a known carcinogen. SoCalGas finally acknowledged that its readings of benzene have spiked above normal at least 14 times since the leak started. Previously they had admitted to higher than normal readings twice. But the gas company and various government officials insist that the benzene levels in the Porter Ranch community, based on 24-hour samples, are consistent with benzene levels in other parts of the LA basin, like that’s anything to brag about.
Since December 22, the company has dug a crater around the wellhead. The crater is 25 feet deep, 80 feet long and 30 feet wide, according to officials. The wellhead and control valves are exposed within the man-made cavern and held in place with cables because it wobbled during the plugging attempt. All of this excavation occurring on top of a deep field of pressurized gas is like a minefield. One false move and the wellhead blows. The risk of a major explosion is so high that workers aren’t allowed to bring cell phones or watches onto the site to avoid causing a spark.
“If the wellhead fails, the thing is just going to be full blast,” said Gene Nelson, a physical sciences professor at Cuesta College. “It will be a horrible, horrible problem. The leak rates would go way up.”
What caused the Aliso Canyon blowout? Earthworks board member Anthony Ingraffea explained to NPR’s Living on Earth that the well casing at the blowout site failed hundreds of feet below the surface, likely due to the predictable corrosion of 60-year old well casings. The safety shut-off device for this well was removed in 1979, and never replaced.
And then this week the Center for Biodiversity released official state documents revealing that gas storage wells are fracked regularly to increase production “while state regulators look the other way.” Blowouts can occur during fracking due to the uncontrolled release of oil or gas from a well. Usually the shut-off device — or “blowout preventer”– prevents that from happening. Except this well didn’t have one, as Ingraffea explained. What could possibly go wrong?
Currently in Colorado, there are 110 underground gas storage facilities. Go see for yourself. Twenty-two are located in Mesa County and 11 are in Pitkin County. And one of them is the 12,000-acre Wolf Creek gas storage area in the northwestern part of the Thompson Divide, not far from Sunlight Mountain Resort near the convergence of Pitkin, Garfield, and Mesa county lines south of Glenwood Springs.
The Wolf Creek gas storage area has existed as a natural gas production and storage site since the 1950s. The Mancos formation lies deep beneath that gas storage field and SG Interests owns the drilling rights to access the buried gas.
Last summer the company filed a Notice of Staking with the BLM:
On July 28, 2015 BLM received a Notice of Staking (NOS) from SG Interests for a proposed well and well pad in the Wolf Creek Natural Gas Storage Area. An NOS is a first step in submitting an Application for Permit to Drill (APD). The next step is for the Forest Service and BLM to schedule a site visit with SG Interests. SourceGas holds the lease, which was issued in 1954. SG Interests has an agreement with SourceGas allowing them to drill within the boundaries of the storage area.
On September 1, 2015, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams met with SG Interests and about 40 activists at the Wolf Creek storage field. Their drilling/fracking proposal is awaiting a final decision from the BLM and the US Forest Service. Will they look the other way?
The Wolf Creek storage area is as old as Aliso Canyon. If and when SGI drills and fracks through that storage field to access the gas in the Mancos formation, there is just as much risk of a blowout as there was and is at Aliso Canyon.
So, the question is: Could Glenwood Springs become the next Porter Ranch?
As the oil & gas market steadily implodes we KNOW that operators are cutting costs left and right. To keep afloat operators select the most accessible well pads and gas fields in order to drill cheap. Inspections are one of the first things they let slide. Even at the state level, as the oil & gas tax revenues decline, the COGCC will have to lay off all those new inspectors they just hired. There’s going to be a lot more looking-the-other-way than there already is now.
Even though drilling has nearly come to a standstill, we are still living in the middle of a gasfield and the infrastructure that goes with it. Not only gas storage fields, but gas processing facilities, tank farms, wastewater ponds, compressor stations, pipeline transfer stations, and hundreds of miles of pipelines. All of this with fewer people minding the store. Soon operators will be folding up their awnings and disappearing into that dark night of no drill rigs. Abandonment. Then no one will be minding the store. But rest assured we will be left with the messes to clean up.
Take action –
Read on —
Daily Sentinel: Understanding underground gas storage
NPR: Living on Earth Interview with Anthony Ingraffea [12 minute audio]
What I Saw in Porter Ranch
By Pete Dronkers, Earthworks Southwest Circuit Rider
Porter Ranch Is Only Tip of the Iceberg Exposing Catastrophic Impacts of Natural Gas
By Jennifer Krill, Earthworks
National Geographic: The World Is Hemorrhaging Methane, and Now We Can See Where
The Aliso Canyon breach is accidental, but thousands of other sites are flaring off methane intentionally, as waste
InsideClimate News: Do Hundreds of Other Gas Storage Sites Risk a Methane Leak Like California’s?
More than 400 facilities holding huge storehouses of natural gas get little regulatory oversight as their infrastructure ages