A Whiff of Methane and the Odor of CorruptionBy: Brett Redmayne-Titley
“Oh! Sure. Twice, just last week,” answered Porter Ranch resident Jim Baker to the question about whether the smell of methane gas was reaching his home.
Residents across the affluent north Los Angeles suburb of Porter Ranch report the same smell. Not good: methane gas is poison. On day one of an on-scene look at the world’s largest natural gas leak, which every day spews uncontrolled at extremely high pressure the equivalent greenhouse gas pollution of 4.5 million cars, another distinct smell is becoming obvious: political corruption.
High above Porter Ranch, natural gas well Standard Sesnon 25 (SS-25) has been blowing high-pressure methane gas into the air for months. The exact date that the blow-out began is uncertain since the owner of SS-25, Southern California Gas Company (Cal Gas), reluctantly admitted to the massive pipe rupture on October 23, 2015, but only after Porter Ranch residents began complaining of the oily smell and several different sicknesses. Documents show that this admission was at least two months after Cal Gas knew of the massive leak and that Cal Gas knew immediately it was due to their own negligence. Why? In order to save money, they had removed the mandatory “safety valves” from the aging well instead of replacing them as required.
In the first light of dawn, it was finally possible to fully see the expanse of Aliso Canyon. Looking east, the grey power lines arrived uninterrupted at a second stanchion on the other side, almost two miles away. After a very steep ascent to this position, a perfect vantage point was finally reached high-up on this ridge. Before us, a panoramic view of an environmental disaster. To the left, still higher up, on the almost sheer northwest ridge, slowly illuminating under the rising sun, there it was: SS-25.
Looking southwards, the scene of an unfolding human disaster far below: the Los Angeles basin with its 18.5 million people. Littered with 115 aging petroleum and gas wells, Aliso Canyon resembles the wasteland of an old open-pit mine. Far below the ridge, a single service road snakes over the 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility. Due to the wind storm today the roar of the leak cannot be heard, but on a reconnaissance hike two days before a strange rushing metallic but hollow sound grew louder and louder.
With very high and steep walls and SS-25 on the wall of the top-most ridge, Aliso Canyon acts as a giant funnel. When the wind is slick, all that methane has only one place to go: down. The predominant easterly winds force the heavier methane off the cliff wall into the open airspace over the five-square-mile canyon. Six hundred feet below, the canyon floor begins to descend south, while its steep walls narrow ever tighter. This transforms into a smaller ravine called Limekiln Canyon, which drops southward directly towards two sub-divisions of Porter Ranch and continues out of sight in the direction of the USA’s second-largest population.
As of February, SS-25 had leaked almost six billion cubic feet of methane from an existing reserve. Normally stored underground at 2,800 psi (more than a scuba tank’s pressure), gas coming from as far away as Canada makes up the 160 billion cubic feet currently stored. Cal Gas said on January 18 that it abandoned a plan to capture and burn the leaking natural gas and instead decided to run off the pressure to approximately 1,200 psi. At its peak on November 28, the well blew nearly 60,000 kilograms (or 66 tons) of methane per hour! By December 22, that rate had dropped to 30,300 kilos, according to the state’s Air Resources Board. However, at the request of Cal Gas the PUC allowed them to stop after releasing just 25 million cubic feet of working gas, in violation of California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent emergency order. When considering Brown’s track record of allegiance to the oil industry, Cal Gas is likely not worried about state enforcement.
In 2011, Occidental Petroleum was denied a permit for the use of the Inglewood Oilfield, because Acting Director of the California Department of Conservation, Derek Chernow, and Elana Miller, as California State Oil & Gas supervisor, cited the need for additional environmental review. Later that year, previous California governor Gray Davis, acting as the new legal counsel to Occidental, phoned Brown and demanded that both these public officials be fired. Two weeks later on October 28, Brown called both Chernow and Miller telling them to grant the permit or they would be removed from their posts. When they refused, Brown made good on his threat. He replaced Chernow with Tim Kusic, who on January 9, 2012, granted the permit to Occidental.
The punchline came on January 13, when Occidental deposited $250,000 into a fund for Brown’s personal initiative, Proposition 30. Further investigation revealed that Occidental deposited a total of $1.3 million in the Prop. 30 account and that Brown received from the oil company a total of $2,104,570 starting well before his campaign to become California’s new populist governor.
SS-25 began operations on February 25, 1954, as an oil well. Converted to a gas storage well in 1973 and upgraded in 1979, evidence shows that it was last inspected on October 21, 2014. The aging well was part of petroleum extraction that began in the 1930s. When the oil was used up it left space for the equivalent of one cubic mile of highly compressed gas to be stored deep down, one-and-a-half miles under a sandstone cap.
SS-25 extends down 8,748 feet, penetrating the capstone, a layer of nonporous rock that keeps the stored gas from escaping. Cal Gas speculates that the leak is coming from a hole in a seven-inch-diameter pipe about five hundred feet below the surface. The pipe is supposedly surrounded by a cavity and a cement casing ending 990 feet down. The engineers surmise that the gas has forced its way through the soil to the surface. This is not surprising: Documents allegedly show that the mandatory cement casing was also omitted by Cal Gas. SS-25, meanwhile, had been blowing a deadly cocktail of methane, benzene, and formaldehyde at no less than 30,000 kilos per hour.
There is seemingly undeniable evidence of the politically linked corruption between Cal Gas and the California public agencies of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geo-thermal Resources (DOGGR). With the likely knowledge of the California Governor, these public officials are allegedly colluding to use their collective political power to stop this long, sad moan of environmental desperation from reaching the ears of a threatened public and turning into an international howl of public anger and outrage.
Good reason for anger and outrage was provided to the public at a meeting held on January 22, 2016, at the Marriot Hotel in nearby Woodland Hills. Nearly eight hundred local residents packed into the main hall. Facts and documents were projected for the crowd on two large screens, and Porter Ranch residents reported limited help from Cal Gas. Although over 2,000 residents have been offered temporary relocation, it has been up to Cal Gas, with their unsubstantiated and very limited testing, to determine the afflicted area. And since few landlords are willing to accept a two-to-three month rental, relocation has not been simple. Making matters worse, mortgage banks are refusing to lend on Porter Ranch properties and adjacent subdivisions, leaving homeowners with valueless properties. Schools have also been relocated: 1,100 students from Porter Ranch Community School now attend Northridge Middle School instead. Residents want mandatory testing in hundreds of locations, return of losses in property values, safety valves placed on all wells, and none of these expenses to be passed along to the ratepayers. Cal Gas, ever in denial, issued a statement through their legal team that regarding Cal Gas liability, “No taking of property has occurred.” Here lies the endemic problem.
Two US Congressmen, Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. Steve Knight, stated their support for residents and gave details subsequent to their demand for information from Cal Gas and an on-site inspection of the well site. “The burden of proof is on Cal Gas to prove that the facility is safe,” stated Sherman. Dr. Bardia Anvar, of local Valley Urgent Care, then went over the chemicals being rained down on them, the health risks, and the symptoms—100 or more residents had already required medical attention. His recommendation: “Get out of the area.” Rashes, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and nose bleeds are increasing in frequency, and the cause is obvious. Benzene is also highly carcinogenic. Limited testing by Cal Gas has shown that both methane and benzene gases are settling in concentrations indiscriminately across the lower Porter Ranch hillside and valleys, and testing by UC Davis proves that methane is indeed spreading far and wide via the atmosphere over Los Angeles. Still worse, when methane is exposed to sunlight it transforms into formaldehyde, which is heavier, very poisonous, and highly carcinogenic.
The heaviness of the released gases has also had a tragic effect on pets. Reports of dead or sick pets are frequent. Dr. John Tenzes, a veterinarian toxicologist, spoke of the increased risk to pets and advised keeping them indoors.
As is the case with any quest for justice in the US, reliance on elected and appointed public officials seems useless, if not foolhardy, and the lawyers were left to provide any pretext of justice to the crowd. Fortunately, next up was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney with a big reputation. He explained documents, lists, and charts in detail, showing a trail of governmental and regulatory agency corruption that has become far too pervasive and demonstrate, at best, a laissez-faire attitude by DOGGR and PUC. Kennedy summed up the affair as a “subversion of democracy” and presented a copy of a mandatory testing report that was submitted to the California Department of Conservation. This report from the October 2014 test, showing testing data and signed by a Cal Gas inspector, stated that the well had passed and, conspicuously, that the sub-surface safety valve had been inspected and had also passed. This was, of course, untrue, since other documents obtained by Kennedy from Cal Gas show the safety valve was indeed removed many years prior and never replaced.
As with most states, California regulatory agencies are under direct control of a state commission that oversees the oil and gas industry. Supposedly beholden to the “public interest,” these agencies were once the checks and balances of insuring this interest over the industry. DOGGR, PUC, and AQMD are all beholden to the California Department of Conservation, which is in turn under the direction of the Governor’s office. Cal Gas is subordinate to them all, but it has become clear that the chain of command has been inverted. The PUC exerted little involvement with Cal Gas, leaving that to DOGGR, which was charged with issuing well permits, reviewing inspections, and enforcing regulations. DOGGR was so lax that in 2011 the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed a report regarding DOGGR’s routine and improper issuance of permits. SS-25 was under their watch.
South Coast AQMD has only come into play since the acknowledgement of the leak; however, predictably, this agency had followed the party-line of Cal Gas: deny, deny, deny… In the face of growing evidence to the contrary, Cal Gas continued to minimize all risks and liabilities using their own test results and AQMD echoed this lack of concern while differing with Cal Gas’ reports. Responding finally to the obvious and mounting public pressure, South Coast AQMD on January 26 filed suit accusing Cal Gas of negligence in the “design, construction, operation and inspection of the wells.”
The PUC’s commissioners have yet to express any serious concern. Public outrage has forced the PUC to require independent testing, call for full disclosure by Cal Gas, and conduct an independent review of SS-25, but compliance by Cal Gas has been slow and inconclusive. The PUC has so far been willing to accept all unfounded promises and assurances offered by Cal Gas—without requiring results.
This was illustrated at a public PUC rate-payer meeting held at the Woodland Hills Hilton on January 20. There, after three months of local hardships and mounting independent evidence, PUC commissioners placated a room full of frustrated residents, many of whom have been temporarily uprooted from their homes. PUC regulators finally approved a comprehensive abatement order that required the Southern California Gas Co. to take immediate steps to contain the leak affecting Porter Ranch, permanently shut down the damaged well, establish a leak-detection system, and conduct an independent health study. This would seem obvious, but after three-plus months of cover-up it was in reality ludicrous.
As showcased by Kennedy that evening, none of this obfuscation absolves Cal Gas or its minions from three prima facie conclusions. One: A cocktail of invisible cancer-causing poison is dispersing itself over the breadth of the Los Angeles valley. Two: Cal Gas has negligently caused this disaster by fraudulently removing and failing to replace the safety valves. Their risk has literally “blown up” in the faces of a largely unsuspecting public. Three: If not for the complicity of the state agencies, this disaster would never have happened.
For Cal Gas it was “cheaper to pay death payments!” assessed Kennedy. Indeed. How many other Aliso Canyon wells have been adulterated by Cal Gas in favor of profit?
As Kennedy unveiled his evidence, other recent US environmental disasters and corporate cover-ups came easily to mind: the BP oil disaster; the Arkansas and Michigan tar sands pipe ruptures; and the Flint, Michigan, public drinking water supply atrocities. All followed a pattern much like Aliso Canyon, where US elected politicians and appointed government regulatory officials have personal allegiances, not to their affected constituents or populations but to the greed of corporations that don’t care about the environment and pull their political and financial purse-strings as an effective substitute.
Other recent local evidence of this was the long history of Southern California’s San Onofre Nuclear power plant. Exemplifying the PUC’s allegiance to its corporate masters, at the request of electrical power provider Southern California (So. Cal.) Edison, PUC shifted over $2 billion of SCE obligations to the ratepayers, which Edison subsequently spent on fraudulently re-designing and manufacturing cheaper versions of the two essential gigantic “steam generators.” This allowed Edison to continue to operate the power plant beyond its expiration date. Both generators failed within eighteen months of installation after emitting radioactive material into the air and causing a local panic and temporary shutdown. When the public outcry was heard by the PUC, the directors did literally nothing. When So. Cal. Edison’s fraud was finally beyond all dispute and San Onofre was ordered to be shut down for good, the PUC gave Edison one last present: They required the afflicted ratepayers to pay for Edison’s lost future income and all shutdown costs.
To Ray Lutz, this all sounds familiar. As national coordinator of Citizen’s Oversight Projects (COPs), his organization was the focal point for the collective San Onofre shutdown effort. He knows, too well, about the PUC. Announcing on January 29 the COPs’s formal petition of the PUC for an investigation into Aliso Canyon, he stated flatly, “History is repeating itself before our eyes… Unfortunately, there is little hope that our regulatory agency [PUC] will do its job.”
On top of the northeast ridge above where SS-25 sits, relief well Porter 39a is drilling seven thousand feet down at 100 rpm. It is reportedly within six-hundred feet of hitting its target. Cal Gas reports this will take only five more weeks. Its trajectory is to approach SS-25 at an angle, then parallel to the pipe for nearly 6,000 more feet before angling into the concrete casing where the pipe meets the capstone. Should they miss their target, there is a second relief well. But there is a problem with this plan: Sitting some three hundred yards from Porter 39a, the second relief site is vacant. Cal Gas reported that they would begin drilling there no later than January 20, but the second relief well is a mere concrete pad with no sign of activity or drilling equipment on it. This broken promise emphasizes Cal Gas’ level of concern for PUC enforcement and its preparedness for disaster. As for federal interest in the nation’s biggest natural gas disaster, the EPA has refused to take jurisdiction, despite the magnitude of the disaster.
Getting in the car to leave, I slammed the door just a little bit harder than necessary. A nearby steel collection can clanged its warning into the wind, and beyond it, towards the high ridges of Aliso Canyon, was a wondrous morning panorama. The billowing hill grasses thrashed about, shining in every shade of silver and gold against the sky—pure blue from the quickly rising sun of a new day.
Some fifteen hundred feet above: SS-25, the biggest methane gas disaster in US history, raging out of control. For what? Silver and Gold.
Due to a growing sense of obligation to help create positive change, Brett Redmayne-Titley began reporting on-scene from current events of geo-political, environmental, and moral importance in an effort to provide better quality reporting. A life-long activist, political commentator, and world citizen, he has published over one hundred in-depth articles, many of which have been re-published and translated internationally.