What You Need to Know About the California Gas Leak

The gas leak has triggered a state of emergency in California. Here are the details you need to know.

A gas leak in the California community of Porter Ranch is currently spewing methane into the atmosphere, sickening residents and polluting the environment. This has been going on since October 23, and Gov. Jerry Brown has finally declared a state of emergency.

This environmental catastrophe is not one to be taken lightly. It’s considered to be the worst pollution disaster since the BP oil spill. As gas continues to leak into the surrounding area, Southern California Gas Co. struggles to pick up the pieces. It is predicted that the leak will not be plugged until late February or March.

The Porter Ranch community is located near the Santa Susana Mountains, just north of Los Angeles. In the early 1970s, SoCal Gas bought portions of the oil fields to store natural gas. Since then, the Aliso Canyon Storage facility consists of the second largest gas storage facility  in the western U.S.

Vox.com reports on the leak:

One of the wells in the Aliso Canyon facility, SS-25, is leaking methane. Engineers still do not know why, or exactly where in the well the leak is located. Like many of the wells that go down into the “capstone” atop the gas deposits, SS-25 is extremely deep, extending almost 9,000 feet (more than a mile and a half) into the earth.

All attempts to stop the leak have been ineffective. SoCal Gas tried dumping a mix of brine and mud down in the well in order to help contain the gas, but the mixture eventually ran into an ice plug. The company then melted the ice plug and continued dumping, but the pressure of the gas coming up was higher than the mud coming down. If they pushed the mud too hard, the pipe could fracture. This strategy was abandoned, so it’s on to plan B.

The new plan consists of drilling two relief wells to intersect the leaking pipe at its juncture. These wells would be much better suited to deposit the brine and mud combination, but the process will take months.

SoCal gas explains the strategy (along with a persistent introduction noting their dedication to fix the problem), via their website. Here’s a brief update on their process:

We are also initiating a secondary relief well as backup to our ongoing drilling of the primary relief well. Grading of the drilling pad for the secondary well should be complete in early January. At that point a drilling rig will be moved in and set up. Drilling is slated to begin in February.

People want answers. Unfortunately, neither the location of the leak nor the cause has been identified. Jason Marshall, the chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, believes that age was likely a factor. The pipes are 61 years old.

What really doesn’t help is that a “deep subsurface valve” was removed from the well in 1979. Had SoCal gas installed a new safety valve, they might have been able to stop the leak. This didn’t stop the company from telling state regulators that they had replaced the valve in 1979. SoCal executive Rodger Schweke recently stated that the company had not considered it to be a “critical well.”

The leak is causing serious negative ramifications. Families in the Porter Ranch area are experiencing nausea, vomiting, headaches, and respiratory problems due to two of the chemicals from the gas. Schools are shutting down and families are being relocated. So far 2,100 families are currently residing in motels and rental homes. Not only is this inconvenient for the already sick families, but it also forces them to leave their home completely abandoned.

The gas also contains lots of methane, a greenhouse gas that is extremely effective in trapping heat. It’s nontoxic, but adding to LA’s infamous smog problem.  

Also from Vox.com:

As of late last month, the California Air Resources Board estimated that the well had spewed up to 1.9 billion standard cubic feet of natural gas, the greenhouse gas equivalent of 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, as much as 330,000 cars pollute in a year. Yet only 2 percent of what’s stored in the facility has been lost, and there are months to go before the leak is stopped.

Meanwhile, the amount being leaked every day represents an astonishing 25 percent of California’s total methane emissions. It has doubled the methane emissions associated with natural gas production in the state.

That’s a lot of methane.

SoCal is in trouble, already tackling about 25 lawsuits with more on the way. According to legal experts, the liability could shoot well into the billion-dollar range.

So where do we go from here? Gov. Brown is adamant that SoCal Gas foots the bill, and he’s also striving to stop the leak and take care of the families in the Porter Ranch area. New policies have also been drafted in an effort to stop something like this from happening again. These policies include daily inspections of gas storage well heads, consistent measurement of annular gas pressure and gas flow, regular testing of safety valves, detailed risk management plans, and many others. You can find a comprehensive explanation of the new policies here.

One thing worth noting is how reliant our country is on methane gas. It’s much safer than carbon dioxide, oil, and coal. So despite the leak, natural gas facilities will be used for a longer time. That being said, it’s absolutely crucial these companies initiate sound regulations.

You can check updates on the Porter Ranch gas leak via the LA Times.


Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel.  She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.