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It's Going to Be Weeks — Maybe Months — Before the Biggest Gas Leak in the US Is Plugged

Thousands of residents are relocating due to the 11-week-old gas leak, as Southern California Gas Company prepares to cap the flow by drilling a relief well thousands of feet below ground and filling it with cement.
Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA

The utility company at the center of a massive natural gas leak in the Los Angeles area is coming under increasing pressure from elected officials and the public to fix an 11-week-old gas plum that has forced the relocation of thousands of people.

Despite the outcry, though, a remedy is likely weeks, if not months, away at the earliest, according to Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which operates the facility.


Tim O'Connor, director of the California oil and gas program at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said SoCalGas is in "a bind."

"They're trying to stop a leak that they themselves have admitted is the most complex and high volume leak in their history," he said. "And, at the same time, they have to balance thousands of requests for people that want to move."

The company, which discovered the leak on October 23, is seeking to cap it by pumping cement into a relief well that will join the leaking well thousands of feet below ground. An estimated 62 million cubic feet of gas — more than a quarter of the state's daily emissions of greenhouse gases — was escaping each day, according to EDF, although the flow rate has reportedly diminished.

Natural gas consists mostly of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 80 times more effective at trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame.

The facility lies a mile outside of the 30,000-person Los Angeles neighborhood of Porter Ranch, located in the San Fernando Valley.

"Our top priority at SoCalGas is to safely and expeditiously stop the leak, mitigate environmental and community impacts, and reduce the amount of natural gas being emitted into the environment," SoCalGas spokesman Raul Gordillo said.

The company tried to plug the well with fluids the day after the rupture was discovered, but the attempt failed because of ice blockage. Boots & Coots, a subsidiary of Halliburton, was brought in and succeeded in dissolving the ice, but failed seven attempts to plug the well because fluids were no match for the high pressure of escaping gas.


SoCalGas and state agencies have not determined the cause of the leak.

Related:California Issues State of Emergency for Massive Natural Gas Leak

At least 2,855 families from Porter Ranch residents have fled their homes, with another 1,819 in the process of leaving, according to Mitchell Englander, the Los Angeles city councilman who represents Porter Ranch. Many residents report suffering from headaches, nosebleeds, muscle aches, and vomiting.

"This really is an emergency. You see risk and you see health and safety jeopardized and a community being displaced," said Englander. "Here's a lot of fear, uncertainly and doubt. People don't know long-term impacts could be. With that, many have fled."

California's Governor Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency January 6 in an effort to heighten coordination between state agencies and SoCalGas and address health and safety concerns among residents living nearby the natural gas facility. State legislators have also stepped in, proposing legislation aimed at preventing future natural gas leaks by imposing tighter restrictions on facilities that are adjacent to residential areas.

EDF's O'Connor said the leak has been "an emergency since day one."

"The state of California has been throwing everything they can at this leak. And it's been state agencies that have been out front — as it should be," he said. "Initial responses from the company clearly downplayed the significance of this event. It is also clear that a better response plan should've been in place, especially because we're looking at a couple more months before this event is finally over."

Follow Eric Killelea on Twitter: @EricKillelea