Before she retired in 2014, Anneliese Anderle was a field engineer for the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermic Resources, which regulates oil drilling. She worked out of offices in Bakersfield, Cypress and Ventura, and for a while she was responsible for monitoring the massive natural gas storage field at Aliso Canyon.
Southern California Gas owns the facility, which distributes gas to 14 power plants and 21 million customers. In her years monitoring wells at Aliso Canyon, Anderle says she got to know the gas company as "a first-class operation."
The company tended to be conservative, and to do things rigorously and by the book. But the wells at Aliso Canyon were aging, and many were starting to wear out.
"They have a beautiful facility," she says. "It's gleaming. They have great roads and well-marked pipelines. Everything's painted. But just below the surface, it's junk."
On Oct. 23, gas company employees noticed a leak out of the ground near a well called SS-25. It was late afternoon, so they decided to come back in the morning to fix it.
The next day, however, their efforts were unsuccessful. Gas was now billowing downhill into Porter Ranch, an upscale community on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Customers were beginning to complain about the smell.
Gas leaks are not uncommon, and it took a couple weeks for this one to become news. When Anderle heard about it, in early November, she pulled up the well record on a state website. The file dates back to when the well was drilled in 1953. As she looked it over, she zeroed in on a piece of equipment 8,451 feet underground called a sub-surface safety valve.
If it were working properly, the gas company would be able to shut down the well. The fact that SoCalGas hadn't meant, to her, that it must be broken. The records indicated that it had not been inspected since 1976.
"That's almost 40 years," she says. "It's a long time to leave it in the well."
As weeks went by and further efforts to stop the leak failed, it became clear that the company was dealing with an unprecedented catastrophe.
On Dec. 15, the Weekly interviewed Rodger Schwecke, a SoCalGas executive who is helping to coordinate the response to the leak. Asked about the safety valve, he said it wasn't damaged. It actually wasn't there.
"We removed that valve in 1979," he said.
He pointed out that the valve was old at that time and leaking. It also was not easy to find a new part, so the company opted not to replace it. If SS-25 were a "critical" well — that is, one within 100 feet of a road or a park, or within 300 feet of a home — then a safety valve would be required. But it was not a critical well, so it was not required.
"Now there's definitely going to be a push for changing the regulations," Anderle said, when told of the missing valve. "You get rid of a safety valve because it wasn't working? A safety valve would have shut the damn well down! They're in a bunch of trouble."
Gas has now been spewing out of the ground at Aliso Canyon for two months. The gas company expects it to continue for up to another three months. Methane is a potent contributor to climate change. By one estimate, the leak is producing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the tailpipes of 2.3 million cars.
The Aliso Canyon leak has increased the state's methane emissions by 21 percent. As of now, 2.3 percent of the state's entire carbon footprint is coming from one hole in the ground above Porter Ranch.
"This is an environmental disaster," said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who stopped by Porter Ranch Community School in November, just before flying to Paris for the United Nations climate change conference. "It's devastating. It makes you question the long-term sustainability of a carbon-based power system
"You have a home that you used to love. People move to Porter Ranch for the views, the camaraderie and the community. Now we're seeing it be destroyed." —Ellen Oppenberg, a resident of Porter Ranch for 22 years
The local impact also has been severe. About 30,000 people live in Porter Ranch, a bedroom community of gated developments with 4,000-square-foot homes that sell for $1 million or more. The neighborhood offers good schools, clean air and a sense of security. All of that has been disrupted. Many residents have experienced headaches, nosebleeds, nausea or other symptoms. Some 2,000 families have been moved to hotels or short-term rentals to escape the gas.
"It's frightening," says Ellen Oppenberg, a resident of Porter Ranch for 22 years. "You have a home that you used to love. People move to Porter Ranch for the views, the camaraderie and the community. Now we're seeing it be destroyed."
Families have agonized about whether to allow their children to play outdoors. The school district has opted to relocate two schools starting in January. Some parents have rushed their babies to the emergency room with shortness of breath. Some say their pets are throwing up. Whenever anyone gets sick they wonder, Is it the gas?
"I'm in the frame of mind of, 'What do I gotta do to protect my family?'" says Pete Adams, a longtime Porter Ranch resident who has not left but is thinking about it. "Did I cause irreversible damage to my family by being ignorant?"
Public health officials have tried to be reassuring. The air readings are not so bad as to require a mandatory evacuation. But officials also have said that people's symptoms are real, and have forced the gas company to pay for relocations.
Lawyers are coming in from around the country to sign up clients to sue the gas company. The first class-action suit was filed on Nov. 23, and at least two more have followed. A massive crowd came out to a megachurch on a Wednesday night to hear Erin Brockovich, the celebrity environmental crusader, give a pitch for yet another law firm.
So far, officials have not faulted the gas company's efforts to stop the leak, nor have they cited conditions that may have caused it. But outside experts have identified several concerns. Among them is the missing safety valve. Some also have questioned why it's taking so long to drill a relief well to seal the leak.
For a company that is generally so cautious, SoCalGas seems to have been unprepared for a leak of this magnitude. That's especially troubling because SS-25 is far from unique. Many other wells are just as old, or older, and according to SoCalGas they also lack sub-surface safety valves. If one of them were to crack, this disaster could easily happen again.
When they bought their homes in Porter Ranch, few people had any idea they were moving so close to one of the largest gas-storage facilities in the country. Aliso Canyon is a massive natural reservoir — about one cubic mile, buried a mile and a half below ground.
Oil was discovered there in 1938. The Tidewater Associated Oil Company, owned by J. Paul Getty, produced oil and gas from the field until it was depleted in the early 1970s. Getty Oil sold the field to Pacific Lighting Corp. (a gas company formed in the 19th century, when gas was used to light homes), which converted it to storage in 1972.
Sempra Energy, the successor to Pacific Lighting Corp. and the parent company of Southern California Gas, now owns the field. It is quite common for gas to be stored in depleted oil fields. In addition to Aliso Canyon, Sempra owns three smaller storage fields in Southern California: Playa del Rey, La Goleta and Honor Rancho.
Most of the wells at these fields were drilled many decades ago. In filings with the Public Utilities Commission in 2014, the company noted that of 229 wells at its facilities, half were at least 57 years old. Fifty-two of them were at least 70 years old.
Steel corrodes after decades underground. In 2008, the company had to do three costly workovers to repair leaking wells. By 2013, that number had grown to nine.
The older wells were not built to modern standards. New wells typically are sealed to the surrounding rock formation with cement from the surface of the ground to the bottom of the well. That makes the casings stronger and protects them from water. Older wells were not cemented from top to bottom.