Thursday, January 28, 2016


Original Story:

The California Public Utilities Commission is studying the effects of permanently shutting down the Aliso Canyon natural gas field near Porter Ranch, an indication the agency is uncertain about the future integrity of the storage system that supplies 11 million customers in Southern California.

The commission wants to know whether Southern California Gas Co. can find alternative storage sites and delivery systems to make up for a possible shortfall of gas should the 3,600-acre field be taken off-line in the future. A California environmental lawyer is following this story closely.

Edward Randolph, energy division director at the PUC, said the regulatory agency is studying the issue for several reasons, “including that, with several investigations underway, policymakers in California want to know all possible short- and long-term options.”

“Until there are definitive answers on the future of Aliso Canyon, we want to do everything we can to assure reliability knowing that Aliso Canyon is not going to be able to provide the levels of service it historically has,” Randolph said.

A week ago, Timothy Sullivan, executive director of the PUC, ordered the utility to work with government agencies to develop alternatives to reliance on Aliso Canyon.

Gas company spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan declined to comment on the issue, except to say, “We’re not going to try to speak for the CPUC.” A Virginia environmental lawyer has experience with multiple industry types and implications of detrimental environmental practices.

Sustaining energy reliability without the 3,600-acre facility would be daunting. Existing pipelines lack the capacity to make up such a shortfall, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and other storage facilities in the region are too small or too far away to provide gas quickly enough when needed.

Disruption of gas service requires technicians to visit homes and businesses to relight pilot lights on furnaces and water heaters — a process that could take weeks if the interruption is widespread. Curtailing gas for electric power generation could trigger blackouts during peak demand periods in summer.

Commission safety officials say their top priorities are stopping the leak that has displaced thousands of residents since it began spewing mostly methane Oct. 23 and ensuring that it never happens again.

“We hear loud and clear that many members of the local community want Aliso Canyon permanently taken out of service,” Elizaveta Malashenko, director of safety and enforcement at the PUC, said in a report to her agency Jan. 21. A Baton Rouge environmental attorney is reviewing the details of this case.

“First, we are working on analysis of how reliability issues can be addressed now and if Aliso Canyon is not operational during the upcoming summer,” Malashenko said. “Second, we are working on the analysis of how reliability issues can be addressed if Aliso Canyon is not operational next winter and beyond.”

Rep. Brad Sherman, a resident of Porter Ranch, said he does not believe the gas company has enough storage elsewhere to guarantee delivery to power generation plants during peak demands in the summer.

“If it is feasible, it ought to be shut down — but I’m not holding my breath,” Sherman said. “That’s because they’ve created a facility that is literally too big to fail.”

The gas company operates four underground storage fields in Southern California with a combined “working gas” capacity of about 136 billion cubic feet. Aliso Canyon is by far the largest, with a working gas capacity of 86.2 billion cubic feet. A Texas oil & gas lawyer represents landowners in negotiating the terms of seismic permits, option agreements, oil and gas leases, and easements.

The leak rate of the ruptured well has dropped by two-thirds to 18,400 kilograms per hour since its peak Nov. 28. The decline was achieved by increasing withdrawals of gas from the storage reservoir, which reduced the pressure that is pushing the gas up the well and leaking out, the gas company said. As a result, the reservoir has gone from being 90% full before the leak to at most 37% full Jan. 10.

The PUC has been working with state agencies including the California Energy Commission and California Independent System Operator to determine how far the amount of gas stored at Aliso Canyon can be reduced while keeping homes heated and gas-fired power plants running.

PUC executive Sullivan recently ordered the gas company to reduce the level of working gas at the facility to 15 billion cubic feet, which he described as “the greatest extent possible, while ensuring energy reliability requirements so that customers are not left without heat and hot water and electricity outages do not occur.” A Tulsa energy lawyer represents clients in energy law matters.

The utility believes plugging the ruptured 1950s-era well known as SS-25 could take until late February. On Wednesday, the company said it will temporarily plug 18 vintage wells to inspect for signs of weakness, corrosion and mechanical damage. The Aliso Canyon facility has 115 wells in all.

Among those who believe Aliso Canyon has outlived its usefulness is Robert G. Bea, a retired professor of civil and petroleum engineering and co-founder of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at UC Berkeley.

“My big question is this: Why must we wait for a system to fail before we are galvanized into action?” Bea said. “The tragic result is always the same: Tick. Tick. Tick.”

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Original Story:

In the months after Sept. 11, 2001, as U.S. security officials assessed the top targets for potential terrorist attacks, the small town of Cushing, Okla., received special attention. Even though it is home to fewer than 10,000 people, Cushing is the largest commercial oil storage hub in North America, second only in size to the U.S. government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The small town's giant tanks, some big enough to fit a Boeing 747 jet inside, were filled with around 10 million barrels of crude at the time, an obvious target for someone looking to disrupt America's economy and energy supply. A Tulsa environmental lawyer provides professional legal counsel and extensive experience in many aspects of environmental law.

The FBI, state and local law enforcement and emergency officials, and the energy companies that own the tanks formed a group called the Safety Alliance of Cushing. Soon, guards took up posts along the perimeter of storage facilities and newly installed cameras kept constant surveillance. References to the giant tanks and pipelines were removed from the Cushing Chamber of Commerce website. In 2004, the Safety Alliance simulated a series of emergencies: an explosion, a fire, a hostage situation.

After the shale boom added millions of additional barrels to Cushing, its tanks swelled to a peak hoard of more than 60 million barrels this spring. That's about as much petroleum as the U.S. uses in three days, and it's more than six times the quantity that triggered security concerns after Sept. 11. The Safety Alliance has remained vigilant, even staging tornado simulations after a few close calls. A North Dakota environmental attorney is reviewing the details of this story.

Now the massive oil stockpile faces an emerging threat: earthquakes. In the past month, a flurry of quakes have hit within a few miles of Cushing, rattling the town and its massive tanks. According to the Oklahoma Geological Survey, more than a dozen quakes have registered 3.0 or higher on the Richter scale within a few miles of Cushing since mid-September. The biggest, registering at 4.5, hit about three miles away on Oct. 10.

This is all part of the disturbing rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma, which has corresponded to increased fracking activity and oil production in the state. Since 2008, Oklahoma has gone from averaging fewer than two earthquakes per year that measure at least 3.0 in magnitude to surpassing California as the most seismically active state in the continental U.S. This year, Oklahoma is on pace to endure close to 1,000 earthquakes. Scientists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado recently published a paper (PDF) raising concerns that the welter of moderate-sized earthquakes around Cushing could increase the risk of larger quakes in the future.  An Austin mineral rights lawyer is following this story closely.

Seismologists believe the quakes are the result of wastewater injection wells used by the fracking industry. Horizontal oil wells in Oklahoma can produce as many as nine or 10 barrels of salty, toxin-laced water for every barrel of oil. Much of that fluid is injected back underground into wastewater disposal wells. It is this water, injected near faults, that many seismologists—including those at the U.S. Geological Survey—say has caused the spike in earthquakes.

The role that fracking plays in the rise of earthquakes has been hugely controversial in Oklahoma, where one in five jobs is tied to the oil and gas industry. This year, as Bloomberg reported, seismologists at the Oklahoma Geological Survey were pressured by oil companies not to make a link between the earthquakes and fracking-related wastewater injection wells. Under the weight of mounting scientific evidence, Republican Governor Mary Fallin's administration in April finally acknowledged the role fracking played in earthquake activity. A Tulsa oil and gas lawyer has a deep understanding of oil and gas laws, including laws involving fracking, natural gas production, and petroleum production.

In June, the Oklahoma Supreme Court said that a woman injured in an earthquake could sue an Oklahoma oil company for damages. That company, Tulsa-based New Dominion, is one of the pioneers of a new breed of high-volume wastewater injection wells that can suck down millions of barrels of water and bury it deep underground. In April, Bloomberg Businessweek profiled David Chernicky, its charismatic founder and chairman.

Now that quakes appear to have migrated closer to Cushing, the issue of what to do about them has morphed from a state issue to one of natural security. The oil in Cushing props up the $179 billion in West Texas Intermediate futures and options contracts traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Not only is Cushing crucial to the financial side of the oil market, it is integral to the way physical crude flows around the country. As U.S. oil production has nearly doubled over the past six years, Cushing has become an important stop in getting oil down from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and into refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. If even a couple of Cushing's tanks had to shut down, or a pipeline were damaged, the impact could ripple through the market, probably pushing prices up. That outcome is especially likely if a spill were to knock Cushing offline for a period of time—a scenario no less dangerous than a potential terrorist attack. A New Orleans environmental lawyer represents clients in environmental law matters.

"Induced seismicity is the most terrifying of all the fracking risks," said Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington-based consultancy. The fact that more quakes appear to be getting closer to Cushing is "definititely concerning," said Book.  "Anything that puts those tank farms at risk is very serious."

So far, no damage has been reported by companies that own the tanks. Michael Barnes, a spokesperson for Enbridge, a Canadian company that owns the largest tank capacity in Cushing, said employees checked for signs of damage around the facility after the Oct. 10 quake and found none. Enbridge has not made changes to its emergency or disaster plans in light of the quakes.
The local fire and police departments have updated their emergency response plans to include information related to earthquake safety. "We're fairly new to earthquakes in Oklahoma," said Chris Pixler, Cushing's fire chief. "We've always been good at preparing for fires and tornados, and now we're making some changes we felt were necessary in terms of getting information out to citizens about earthquake safety."

Each tank in Cushing is surrounded by a clay-lined berm designed to contain the oil in the event of a rupture. Thousands of miles of pipelines stretch beneath Cushing, connecting it to distribution hubs all over the country. It's those arteries that we should be most concerned about getting damaged in an earthquake, said John Kilduff, a partner at Again Capital, a hedge fund that focuses on energy. "Losing some of that pipeline infrastructure could be devastating for a time," Kilduff said. If enough damage occurred, "It could prompt an energy crisis if oil couldn't flow the way we need it to."

State regulators are already taking action. Last month the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which oversees oil and gas, ordered wells within three miles to shut down entirely and those between three and six miles from the town to reduce their volume by 25 percent. On Oct. 19, the OCC put all wastewater injection wells within 10 miles of Cushing on notice. Getting to the bottom of the state's earthquake flurry poses a huge test for the embattled OCC, which is short on staff and has historically had close ties to the oil and gas industry it regulates. The regulator has typically dealt with environmental hazards such as oil spills, not issues of seismic activity. "They not only have to reassure their own constituents they are up to the job, but the federal government as well," said Book. "They're one big event away from a significant federal response."

The Obama administration has largely stayed out of the issue. Last month, however, the Environmental Protection Agency urged the OCC to "implement additional regulatory actions." The past week has been relatively calm around Cushing, with only a couple of minor rumblings that didn't hit nearby. For now, however, the threat of quakes has the city on higher alert than the threat of a terror strike.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Original Story:

Southern California Gas Co. crews are erecting mesh screens around the utility's leaking natural gas injection well to prevent an oily mist from drifting off the site and across the nearby community of Porter Ranch, company officials confirmed on Monday.

The move comes as the company continues to fix a leaking natural gas well that has displaced thousands of residents, a process that is expected to take several more months. A Texas oil and gas lawyer is following this story closely.

The structures under construction on the west side of the well head are designed to capture airborne droplets of a brine solution that “may have contained trace amounts of oil naturally occurring within the leaking well's reservoir,” said Trisha Muse, a spokeswoman for SoCal Gas.


An earlier version of this article said the mesh screens are 100 feet tall. The screens actually lie flat over the well site. The article also misidentified spokeswoman Trisha Muse as Tracy Muse. A Tulsa oil & gas attorney represents their oil & gas clients in federal and state matters and in federal and state courts.

The mist, she said, “may have been carried by the wind to properties immediately adjacent to the facility, particularly when very strong winds blow in that direction.”

The gas company used a massive crane Sunday to install a 60-foot section of the mesh, said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.

The problem first arose Nov. 13, when SoCal Gas used an automated call system to advise local residents to stay indoors because fluids pumped into the well had returned to the surface and created a mist. The company issued an all-clear the following day.

Now, a mixture of brine water and oil is rising up into the gas company's natural gas storage zone, then traveling up the well and into the air. A Pittsburgh environmental lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

As a result, local residents are finding droplets of dark brown residue on their homes, vehicles, fish ponds and gardens. Some are collecting samples on dinner plates, then forwarding photographs of the material to their lawyers.

On Dec. 21, the company posted an update on the massive gas leak that began Oct. 23, pointing out that it was spewing mostly methane, which is not considered to be toxic. It also acknowledged that some residents had asked about “dark brown spots on their property.”

“We sampled it and, according to our retained toxicologist and medical expert,” the company said, “the residue contained heavier hydrocarbons (similar to motor oil) but does not pose a health risk.”

The company has offered to provide cleaning services and reimburse property owners for cleanup costs.

SoCal Gas expects to have the leak fixed in about three months. Until then, the company is paying to relocate and house thousands of residents and pets sickened by fumes that health officials and independent experts say can cause headache, nosebleed, nausea and other short-term ailments but pose no long-term health risks.

On Monday, plaintiffs' attorneys sent a letter to state regulatory officials demanding that they issue an emergency order requiring SoCal Gas to stop all injections, including gas injections and water disposal injections, into the 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon field it acquired in the northern San Fernando Valley in 1972.

With capacity to store 86 billion cubic feet, it is one of the largest natural gas storage facilities in the United States. A North Dakota environmental lawyer provides professional legal counsel and extensive experience in many aspects of environmental law.

The attorneys also demanded that state regulators “explain what is happening with the petroleum now surfacing.”

“There is a complete lack of information in the well files,” their letter says, “to show where the gas and petroleum migrates underground and the risk for creating sink holes and geysers.”

Also on Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown met with members of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council.

“We told him we needed him to organize an oversight group of regulatory agencies that will address the most pressing issues with one voice — now and in the future,” Paula Cracium, president of the group, said.

Muse, the spokeswoman for SoCal Gas, said the new structure is one of several things the company is doing to “help minimize impacts to the community.”