Methane leak prompts scrutiny of gas wells, storage
Signs like these asking for the complete closure of the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage facility, which Southern California Gas considers an essential asset, are beginning to appear at rallies held by residents of Porter Ranch. Jan. 9, 2016, Ingrid Lobet/inewsource

Methane leak prompts scrutiny of gas wells, storage

The blown out natural gas well in a Los Angeles County storage field has been pouring methane into the air for 2½ months now. That flow rate has been diminishing as pressure underground declines, something Southern California Gas has been at pains to accomplish, piping gas to its other Southern California fields as fast as possible.

Natural gas has been viewed as crucial in the transition to low-carbon and carbon-free energy. Electricity in particular is highly dependent on it.

But at the most recent rate measured, it’s estimated the broken Aliso Canyon well is still adding about as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere each day as 4½ million cars on the road.

Now the jaw-dropping release is sparking calls for a new watchdog system for methane, policy changes that take into account our awakened knowledge of storage fields and what we’ve learned in recent years about natural gas infrastructure in general.

Four California state senators — President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Ben Allen, Bob Huff and Fran Pavley — are announcing on Monday a package of legislation aimed at some of the shortcomings they say are already known to have contributed to the blowout. Pavley represents the area where the gas leak occurred and Porter Ranch, the hard-hit community just below the gas field.

“I can assure you there will be new laws,” said Anneliese Anderle, who spent 40 years working in the oil and gas industry from Pennsylvania to the Gulf Coast to California, part of the time as a state engineer with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the agency that most directly supervises wells and gas fields.

Likely to change first, Anderle said, is the lack of requirements for safety shutoff valves. Officials with Southern California Gas, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, have said that decades ago they removed rather than replaced a faulty safety valve in the well that has now failed, Standard Sesnon 25.

The shutoff would not have prevented the blowout from happening but it would have prevented the disastrous ongoing gas flow that has driven 2,800 families from their homes and forced two elementary schools to move all their students elsewhere for the second half of the school year. It has also dramatically increased the total methane emitted into the atmosphere from California for 2015 and 2016. The shutoff was not required.

The only wells on land that are required to have down-well safety shutoff valves are those that are close to airports, residential areas or streams. Close means within 300 feet.

Another focus for regulatory change should be the tests required on wells and pipelines every five years, Anderle said, because they don’t subject wells to sufficient pressure, sometimes not even as high as as routine operations.

“The tests that are being done now are very superficial,” she said.

Instead gas companies should be required to use sophisticated tools well-known to petroleum engineers that can gauge the thickness remaining in well casing (the basic steel in a well), and sense whether fluid is flowing along the outside of a well pipe. That could indicate a lack of cement, or of contact with something corrosive.

Last week’s emergency declaration on the leak also held new requirements. Gov. Jerry Brown instructed the state oil and gas agency to come up with emergency controls for gas storage fields, including daily inspections with infrared cameras that can see the gas, and inspection of those shutoff valves that do exist.

Some, such as Mark Brownstein with Environmental Defense Fund, believe the change must extend well beyond California. The nonprofit has developed expertise on methane, having sponsored 16 studies of leaks in the country’s oil and gas industry, some involving months of work at remote field sites.

Natural gas production and demand don’t necessarily move together, so millions of cubic of feet of natural gas are stored underground for future use. The Aliso Canyon facility in Southern California, currently leaking massive amounts of methane, is one of the largest facilities, but it’s not unique. This map shows the more than 400 underground storage facilities nationwide (blue and green circles), as well as major interstate natural gas pipelines (grey lines). Larger circles indicate larger facilities. Click on a storage facility to find out information like the type and capacity. Only a small fraction of facilities, indicated in green, are required to report their measured methane emissions to the U.S. EPA. Data source: EIA, EPA. Map by Inside Energy.

Some have revealed far more methane is leaking out of America’s gas infrastructure than previously understood.

“Methane leaks at every stage of the oil and gas supply chain, from well heads to the local lines under our streets,” Brownstein said.

Researchers have also found that most of the potent greenhouse gas is leaking from a relatively small number of facilities, a point made by Anthony Marchese, a Colorado State University professor of mechanical engineering who examined 130 natural gas gathering and processing facilities, among others. He found 25 were losing more than 1 percent of their natural gas.

“You might have 99 percent of systems performing properly, and they have very low leak rates, but the hundredth you look at is leaking at 10,000 times the normal rate,“ Marchese said. “That’s what we call ‘super-emitting facilities.’”

Yet the outpouring at Aliso Canyon dwarfs even these super-emitters. At the most recent rate, measured last month, SS-25 was leaking 38 times faster than the worst gas equipment Marchese identified.

And tellingly, researchers found little difference between leak rates from old infrastructure and the miles of new work laid during the recent shale gas boom.

“Every state oil and gas regulator where there is a storage facility should be taking a careful look at their programs,” Brownstein said.

The American Gas Association, a trade group representing the gas industry, declined to make someone one available over the weekend. Another trade group did not respond to a query late Friday. Individual gas companies preferred to speak through their trade group.

But the American Petroleum Institute issued a 52-page set of best practices for gas storage fields just last fall. Javier Mendoza, a spokesman for Southern California Gas, said his company is open to new tools that provide safety advances. “We already have a monitoring and maintenance system that is robust and methodical. And one of the things that we regularly do is look at new technology,” he said.

The calls for change will have to balance safety improvements with protecting supply. Right now, the fifth largest gas storage site in the country is shut down, prohibited from injecting any gas until further notice. It supplies the natural gas for 14 power plants.

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About Ingrid Lobet:

Ingrid Lobet
Ingrid Lobet is a reporter at inewsource specializing in the environment. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email ingridlobet@inewsource.org.