Progress Made on Effort to Stop L.A. Gas Leak

Energy and Climate Report provides current, thorough coverage of clean energy, efficiency, and climate change legislation, regulation, policy, legal developments, and trends in the U.S. and...

By Alan Kovski

Dec. 28 — A two-month effort to stop a big natural gas leak in the Los Angeles area advanced Dec. 27 when Southern California Gas Co. was able to target the leaking gas well several thousand feet below ground at the Aliso Canyon storage reservoir.

The underground targeting, using magnetic ranging technology, was essential to guide the relief well, which has been drilled to a depth of 3,800 feet so far.

SoCalGas said it will need at least two more months to complete the relief well—estimating completion sometime in February or March. The costs for the company, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, could range into the millions of dollars before the well is even sealed.

The company is aiming to intersect the leaking well with the relief well at more than 8,500 feet below the surface and pump heavy mud and fluids into the leaking well to stop the flow of gas from the Aliso Canyon gas storage reservoir below.

After that, the company will pump cement into the bottom of the well to seal it.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health required SoCalGas to provide free temporary relocation to any residents wanting it. Residents are especially troubled by the smell. Two schools have been relocated for the rest of the 2015-2016 school year.

Maybe $44,000 Each Day

SoCalGas has not offered an estimate of the leak rate. The company says it will calculate the lost gas after the leak is stopped and the storage field has stabilized to allow for accurate data analysis.

The California Air Resources Board is making its own estimates. The board has been flying planes through the gas plume to sample methane. The last reported aerial sampling was Dec. 12, producing an estimate of leaking at a rate of 36,000 kilograms per hour for methane, which would be at least 80 percent of the natural gas.

That rate translates into more than 20 million cubic feet of methane a day, or a loss of $44,000 each day at current wholesale gas prices of roughly $2.20 per thousand cubic feet.

If that rate were simply extrapolated from Oct. 23, when the leak was detected, to late February, or about 120 days, it would amount to a loss of $5.28 million just on the commodity alone, not counting the cost of the drilling and other work to stop the leak and the litigation to follow.

The leak rate does not stay the same each day. It can be expected to decline as SoCalGas uses other wells in the Aliso Canyon storage reservoir to draw down the gas volume and reduce the pressure in the reservoir. There are 115 wells in the field. On Oct. 23, the recorded inventory in the reservoir was 77 billion cubic feet.

Smell Driving Residents Away

The leaking natural gas dissipates rapidly in the air and is not considered an imminent health threat to the local population. But the foul smell troubles people, and many have temporarily moved because of that if not from other fears of the methane.

One quirk of the smell is that it is added by gas processors. Purified natural gas has no odor, and the foul-smelling odor is added as a safety measure, so people can detect a leak.

SoCalGas is offering not only free temporary housing away from the leak but also air purification and weatherization services to alleviate the odor problem for people who do not want to relocate.

“We are also initiating a secondary relief well as backup to our ongoing drilling of the primary relief well,” the company said Dec. 27.

Relocations, Legal Actions

The leaking well is near the Porter Ranch neighborhood, an affluent community in the San Fernando Valley on the north side of the Los Angeles metropolitan region.

The Los Angeles City Attorney's Office has taken SoCalGas to court to pressure the company for expedited relocation of residents and to demand information from the company and its employees. At least one class action lawsuit has been threatened.

An array of state offices have gotten involved, including the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the Department of Conservation, which includes the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at