California Well Leaking Methane Ordered Sealed by Air Quality Agency

Ruling would not shut the Aliso Canyon storage facility, bringing a strong rebuke from neighborhood group and environmental agencies

People protesting in Aliso Canyon want the whole gas storage facility shut down.
Aliso Canyon protesters were not placated by Saturday's decision to seal the leaking well. Credit: Mark Ralston/Getty Images

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State regulators ordered Southern California Gas Co. to permanently close and seal the well adjacent to the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles that’s spewing methane and sickening local residents. They also called for enhanced air-quality monitoring in the vicinity and an independent study of potential health effects from the well’s emissions.

The state agency, however, did not order the shutdown of the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility that the leaking well taps in its ruling on Saturday, as environmental groups had demanded. The Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, and Save Porter Ranch, an environmental group in the northwest LA neighborhood closest to the leak, sharply criticized the decision by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) as not going far enough. 

“SCAQMD’s failure to put Californians’ livelihoods first is shameful, and Gov. Brown should intervene swiftly,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a joint statement from the three environmental organizations. “There should be no other choice but to shut down the dangerous Aliso Canyon facility and look to close every urban oil and gas facility throughout California and our country, to ensure the health of our communities and our climate is never again sacrificed for corporate polluter profits.” 

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on Jan. 6, months after the massive leak was discovered Oct. 23. The ruptured well has emitted almost 88,000 metric tons of methane from one of the largest natural gas storage sites in the U.S.  That’s the greenhouse gas equivalent of burning nearly 830 million gallons of gasoline, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.  Well control specialists hired by SoCal Gas are drilling a relief well to plug the leak, an effort the gas company said should be completed by late February.

Thousands of Porter Ranch residents have evacuated and schools have closed since the leak began. Hundreds of residents reported symptoms including nausea, headaches and dizziness. California regulators attribute the symptoms to mercaptans—sulfurous chemicals that are added to natural gas to aid in the detection of leaks. Some health experts are skeptical, however, because there’s virtually no research on prolonged exposure to mercaptans, and trace amounts of benzene, toluene and other known toxins associated with the leaked gas have also been detected.

An independent board appointed by SCAQMD voted to issue Saturday’s abatement order after hearing testimony from more than 100 residents and elected officials. The order calls for SoCal Gas to fund continuous air monitoring. SCAQMD and SoCal Gas have conducted air monitoring since the leak began, but not continuously, drawing criticism from outside experts..

The health study ordered by the agency will include any potential effects from exposure to mercaptans and other odorants added to the gas. The abatement order also called for continuous monitoring of the ongoing leak with an infrared camera until 30 days after the leak has stopped. Infrared cameras and other monitoring equipment have shown plumes of methane gas, which are invisible to the naked eye, blowing across nearby communities, but no known effort to continuously monitor the plume has been attempted.

The hearing board also called for the development and implementation of an enhanced leak detection and reporting program for all of the roughly 115 wells at the storage site.

Brown’s state of emergency declaration requires the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission to submit a report assessing the long-term viability of natural gas storage in California. Aliso Canyon is one of 14 underground natural gas storage areas in the state and supplies 21 million customers in Central and Southern California, according to SoCal Gas.

The report is due six months after completion of an investigation of the cause of the Aliso Canyon leak.

“These gas storage fields can’t disappear overnight, or there would be impacts to actually heating our homes, turning on the lights, etc.,” Wade Crowfoot, deputy cabinet secretary and senior adviser in the Governor’s office, said at a community meeting in Porter Ranch Jan. 15.  “But the state is committed to actually understanding what should be the future of Aliso Canyon. What should be the future of these storage wells? Is it feasible to shut Aliso Canyon down? Is it feasible to shut other gas storage fields down? We’re very open-minded, all options are on the table, but it needs to be fact-based.”