Tuesday, November 30, 2021     Volume: 22, Issue: 39

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 24th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 3 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 17, Issue 3

A mile beneath our feet: A massive natural gas leak in L.A. prompts the question--could it happen in Santa Barbara County?


The La Goleta gas storage field nestles between the city of Goleta and the ocean, only a couple hundred feet inland. To its north lies a residential community that families call home, and the Santa Barbara Airport. Goleta Beach Park, where people play, bike, sunbathe, and fish off the pier, sits just south of La Goleta, and UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) borders the field to the east.

According to SoCalGas, the Aliso Canyon storage facility (pictured) is more than four times the size of La Goleta. Even after La Goleta’s current expansion project is complete, the field will still cover only a fraction of the land Aliso Canyon does.

Residents, beachgoers, students, and travelers who see La Goleta from ground level might say the facility looks like 300 acres of dirt and grass.

But looks can deceive.

If you plunge more than a mile below ground at La Goleta, it’s a different story: You’re looking at 21.5 billion cubic feet of stored natural gas—gas that’s flammable, toxic to the environment, and really, really smelly.

Just last month, a similar gas field called Aliso Canyon turned thousands of surrounding residents’ lives upside down, thanks to a leak from one of its storage wells. People living in the Porter Ranch neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles came down with headaches, nausea, dizziness, and respiratory problems, sickened by odors from the gas leak.

It took 112 days for officials to stop the gas emissions, in which time 4,400 families were driven from their homes.

This chaos went down only some 83 miles south of La Goleta, prompting one question from Santa Barbara County residents: Could what happened in Porter Ranch also happen to us?

The short answer: It probably won’t, but it technically could. And to understand what an emergency at La Goleta would mean, you’ve got to wrap your head around the basics of natural gas.

How underground gas storage works

La Goleta and Aliso Canyon have their differences, but in the end they’re still family. Both facilities are maintained by SoCalGas, which owns four gas storage fields in total. The fields are used to store natural gas thousands of feet below ground for use at a later date, according to Erinn Briggs, an energy specialist for the Santa Barbara County Planning Department.

“You can think of natural gas in a seasonal basis,” Briggs said. “People heat their homes and use more gas during the wintertime, and they use less gas during the summertime.”

SoCalGas feeds gas into the storage basins during the summer. The gas is held there until demand increases during colder winter months, at which point SoCalGas takes it back out. Wells conduct both the injection and extraction of gas, and the removed gas is usually transported from the facilities through pipelines, Briggs said.

La Goleta’s dehydration facility removes water from natural gas extracted from the reservoir. The storage field’s wells draw or inject natural gas more than a mile beneath the ground.

Aliso Canyon and La Goleta were both discovered during oil drills, though if we’re looking at the facilities as siblings, Aliso was definitely the golden child. The Aliso Canyon Oil Field was discovered in 1938 and quickly developed into a lucrative oil producer, peaking in the 1950s. In the ’70s, SoCalGas began using the facility’s depleted reservoirs for gas storage.

La Goleta’s story is much the same—except without all the oil production. The underground field was discovered in 1929 (it’s the oldest gas field in California) and drilled for five years before oil companies gave up on finding the good stuff there. Within the next decade, SoCalGas was using the field for gas production and storage.

Despite similarities in purpose, background, and ownership, La Goleta and Aliso Canyon differ on one major count: size.

Aliso Canyon is the second largest natural gas storage site in the United States, with a capacity of more than 86 billion cubic feet and 115 storage wells (including the well that was leaking, which is now permanently closed).

La Goleta doesn’t touch that size, sporting a storage capacity of 21.5 billion cubic feet with 19 wells, 17 of which are currently active. La Goleta is currently undergoing an expansion, which SoCalGas representatives told the Sun should add between 3 billion and 5 billion cubic feet and four new wells. The company added that the Aliso Canyon leak hasn’t affected the expansion’s progress.

“The La Goleta Storage Field Enhancement Project involves extracting native natural gas from previously untapped reserves by drilling two new wells into known gas reserves and two exploratory wells into prospective reserves,” the SoCalGas representatives explained in an email. “After the native gas reserves are depleted, the reservoirs will be converted to storage use.”

Even with the expansion, La Goleta will be only a fraction of Aliso Canyon’s size. 

Risky business

The Aliso Canyon disaster was a perfect storm of aging infrastructure, inadequate regulation, and slow response time. But as SoCalGas told the Sun, “The leak at Aliso Canyon was a rare and unusual event.” That kind of thing doesn’t happen often.

But when it does, it has more to do with human error than with the actual natural gas reservoirs.

UCSB earth science professor and geologist Jim Boles described gas storage fields as “like natural tanks, but sub-surface.” And because the “tanks” themselves are natural gas reservoirs, Boles said their man-made additions are the riskiest part.

For instance, in the Aliso Canyon leak, the problem was with a corroded metal pipe in one of the injection wells. The 61-year-old faulty pipe lacked a safety valve, which had been removed in 1979 and never replaced.

“In any kind of production of fluids you always have a risk that if it’s not done correctly, there could be a problem,” Boles said.

SoCalGas owns both Aliso Canyon and La Goleta, and the company has ramped up its surveillance of the gas storage facilities following the massive leak at Aliso Canyon.

And in Aliso Canyon’s case, the problem wasn’t just that the leak happened, but that it lasted for 112 days. In an email to the Sun, representatives from the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) wrote that the usual methods for plugging a gas leak weren’t adequate given the size of the leak.

“The standard method for stopping the leak—injecting heavy fluid down the wellhead—didn’t work because the pressure of the gas coming up the well was too great,” the DOGGR email said.

Instead, SoCalGas had to drill a relief well to intercept the leaking well at more than 8,600 feet below ground, according to the company’s email. Once the relief well intercepted the leaking well, SoCalGas pumped fluids and cement into the bottom of the faulty well to stop the flow of gas.

The relief well process began on Dec. 4 and was expected to take three to four months. But it only took 10 weeks, intercepting the leaky well on Feb. 10.

“The depth, distance involved, and precision required to hit a very small target were all factors in the amount of time it took to stop the leak,” DOGGR’s email said. 

Why methane leaks are bad news

We may use natural gas to warm our homes, but it ends up warming our whole planet.

Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau buddied up in North America’s favorite political bromance to announce an effort to reduce methane emissions. The duo vowed to nearly halve the release of methane, a chemical found in natural gas, from existing oil and gas facilities.

After seven failed attempts to stop the Aliso Canyon leak by standard methods—the injection of heavy fluids down the wellhead—SoCalGas had to construct a relief well to intercept the leaking well and stop the flow of gas. For this reason, the leak lasted almost three months.

The announcement came three weeks after DOGGR confirmed they had sealed the Aliso Canyon leak, which scientists say was the largest leak of methane in U.S. history in terms of climate impact.

Methane is colorless, odorless, and extremely flammable—three red flags when it comes to the stuff we breathe all day. Thankfully, the gas is generally not harmful to humans who inhale it. Not-so-thankfully, it’s highly toxic to the environment.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, meaning it plays a key role in climate change. It also contains the organic compound benzene, a known carcinogen. Methane can come from natural sources, such as wetlands, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 60 percent of all methane emissions come from human activity, such as industry, agriculture, or waste management.

According to the EPA, more than a quarter of methane emissions in the United States come from natural gas and petroleum systems. That includes La Goleta and Aliso Canyon.

Briggs said gas companies add a sulfur odorant to their natural gases to make them easier to detect in the case of a leak. But when people are exposed to the stench for prolonged periods of time, they can experience physical symptoms.

For this reason, households were relocated within a five-ZIP-code area of the Aliso Canyon leak, according to SoCalGas.

When the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) evaluated air sample data from around the leak area, the agency concluded the gas emissions were unlikely to cause any long-term illness.

The evaluation said any symptoms reported by Porter Ranch residents could be attributed to the sulfur odorants. It also said the measurements of benzene indicated no serious health hazard and were below the level of concern for chronic health effects. If residents faced an increased cancer risk due to the leak, OEHHA said, it was minimal.

Still, the leak drove thousands of people from their homes—not to mention the fact that any increased risk of cancer is too much. 

Response to the Aliso Canyon leak

The Aliso Canyon leak prompted backlash from the public and environmental groups, and spurred legislative reactions from the county and state levels. But there’s no getting around it: Government response to the Aliso Canyon leak took a while.

The leak started in October. Los Angeles County didn’t declare a state of emergency until December. It was another month before Gov. Jerry Brown declared the same on a state level, and yet another before Brown implemented legislature to prevent a repeat situation.

But however long that legislation took, it did eventually happen—and it resulted in closer monitoring of oil and gas storage in California.

The new regulations, announced on Feb. 5, require gas storage companies—for the Central Coast, that’s SoCalGas—to complete “enhanced inspections and testing” at all gas wells in the state, including the 19 wells at La Goleta.

A news release from the Department of Conservation rounded up the new “safety and reliability measures” currently being implemented to make sure California’s gas storage fields stay safe and sound from here on out:

  • • Require at least daily inspection of gas storage wellheads, using gas leak detection technology such as infrared imaging.
  • • Require ongoing verification of the mechanical integrity of all gas storage wells.
  • • Require ongoing measurement of annular gas pressure or annular gas flow within wells.
  • • Require regular testing of all safety valves used in wells.
  • • Establish minimum and maximum pressure limits for each gas storage facility in the state.
  • • Require each storage facility to establish a comprehensive risk management plan that evaluates and prepares for risks at each facility, including corrosion potential of pipes and equipment.

SoCalGas told the Sun the company is also implementing an expanded storage integrity management program “to proactively identify and mitigate potential storage well safety and integrity issues in addition to SoCalGas’ existing maintenance and prevention program.”

DOGGR is responsible for inspecting La Goleta, and in an email to the Sun the agency said its last inspection took place on Jan. 27 and 28, and “no deficiencies were found.” The field will be inspected by the agency annually, the email said. 

Better safe than sorry

To summarize: The leak at Aliso Canyon was big, bad, and the result of human error. Plus, it went on for a ridiculously long time.

Luckily for us, it’s seriously improbable the same thing would happen at La Goleta—improbable, but still possible. If a leak did occur, the incident will be a first for emergency responders in the area. Still, Deputy Fire Marshal for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department Steve Oaks said the county is prepared.

La Goleta sits between UCSB, the Santa Barbara Airport, Goleta, and areas of state-owned land. Oaks said all these parties would work with the county to respond to any major emergency regarding La Goleta. While it may sound like too many cooks in the kitchen, Oaks said more interested parties means more available resources.

“It sounds like there’s a whole lot of folks involved,” Oaks said. “But essentially we work really well together in what’s called a unified command to set up for this sort of incident, should it occur. Because there’s multiple jurisdictions involved, we have access to assets from those jurisdictions. So in a way, that’s good.”

La Goleta’s compressor station compresses the natural gas, or provides energy to it to push it through the pipeline. Pipelines help distribute the gas stored at La Goleta to SoCalGas customers during winter months, when gas demand increases.

Oaks said it’s hard to sketch out what a gas leak there would look like, since it would depend on how the wind is blowing. But he said the area immediately surrounding La Goleta is relatively undeveloped, with the exception of the small residential community to the north and some parts of UCSB’s campus.

Responders’ strategy would differ depending on the type and severity of the emergency, Oaks said. In the case of an explosion or fire, an engine company would be the first line of defense. If there was a gas leak, the response would focus on finding and sealing the source.

“It’s going to be very similar to our response to about any emergency, in that it ramps up and is really driven by the actual hazard that is being presented,” he said. “It’s adaptable to what we’re presented with.”

Emergency managers from UCSB, the city of Santa Barbara, and the county work together to make sure they’re prepared, according to SBCOEM Interim Director Robert Troy.

“We train and practice together on a regular basis to make sure we have processes in place to effectively coordinate procedures and resources,” Troy said.

To date, La Goleta hasn’t presented the department with any serious issues—just occasional complaints of gas-like odors, for which Troy said SBCOEM calls its partners at public health.

He added that SoCalGas held a tabletop meeting last month with UCSB, the city of Santa Barbara, and other local stakeholders to present an overview of the situation at La Goleta and the security measures in place there.

But no matter how prepared we are or how unlikely a natural gas leak recurrence would be, it’s crucial to know how the chemicals a mile beneath our feet could affect our lives. 

Contact Staff Writer Brenna Swanston at bswanston@santamariasun.com.

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