On Thursday afternoon, Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas) announced that it had “temporarily controlled” a natural gas leak that has spewed more than 80,000 tons of gas from a well just north of Los Angeles. The leak began on October 23, and after SoCal Gas exhausted all other solutions to plug the leak, the company began drilling relief wells as a last-ditch attempt in early December.
“On Feb. 11, 2016, the relief well intercepted the base of the leaking well, and the company began pumping heavy fluids to temporarily control the flow of gas out of the leaking well,” a statement from SoCal Gas read. “DOGGR [California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources] officials and representatives from other state and local agencies were at the site to observe the operation. The leak and the flow of gas will be declared ended once DOGGR has confirmed that the well has been permanently sealed.”
The company will now have to seal the well with cement to permanently shut it down, a process that could take a few more days. Once that occurs, the thousands of displaced residents who lived in the nearby Porter Ranch community will have eight days to return to their homes, at which point SoCal Gas will terminate the leases on temporary housing that the company has been paying for.
While LA county health officials assured residents that the methane spewing invisibly from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility is not harmful to immediate human health, the gas is treated with chemicals that have been giving residents headaches, nosebleeds, and nausea. SoCal Gas has quietly tried to stop offering residents temporary housing and at first told residents that they would have just 48 hours to return to their homes after the leaking well was sealed. However, Los Angeles lawmakers protested and SoCal Gas eventually relented.
While the methane being released from the well may not be critically harmful to humans right away, the impact of the leak on global warming has the potential to be huge as methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
SoCal Gas also said in its statement that it is continuing its work on drilling a second relief well, just in case anything goes wrong with the first one. The leaking well sits atop an old, repurposed oil reservoir that’s approximately 8,500ft underground. The gas company pumps natural gas into the reservoir in summer when demand is low and extracts it in winter when demand is high. The leaking well is one of 115 wells at the Aliso Canyon storage facility, which is one of the biggest natural gas storage facilities in the country.
SoCal Gas is currently facing civil and criminal charges from parties like the South Coast Air Quality Management District and California Attorney General Kamala Harris as well as a family whose elderly mother died during the leak. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company has been ordered not to “‘remove, temporarily store, bury or raze’ anything within a 400-foot radius of the wellhead,” so that investigations into SoCal Gas’ actions can begin.
Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission, also told the LA Times that “The CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission] will be tracking all of the gas company’s costs to make sure they are not allocated to ratepayers and that the shareholders have full responsibility.”