The Aliso Canyon Blowout: A Tale of Corporate ObliviousnessJanuary 18, 2016
By Attorneys Frank Petosa and Rene Rocha
The BP Oil Spill (aka the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill) shocked the world in 2010. The disaster took place in federal waters off the coast of Louisiana, but its impact soon spread to several other states as well—turning upside down the lives of people across the Gulf Coast. It soon became apparent that BP had not previously secured any well control equipment that could be used to respond to the blowout, had not developed any contingency plans to deal with such a blowout, and basically had never bothered to consider the possibility of a catastrophic well failure. As a result of this failure to plan, the only option available to BP was to drill a relief well, a painstaking process that takes months to complete. All the while hydrocarbons and other pollutants billowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
As required by federal law governing offshore oil spills, BP soon set up a claims process for individuals and businesses to submit claims for compensation for the disruption caused by the blowout. However, as weeks turned to months and with the end of the blowout nowhere in sight, it soon became apparent that BP was distorting the claims process, and preying on the struggling individuals and businesses impacted by the blowout to secure full and final releases of liability for pennies on the dollar.
Meanwhile, BP persistently lied to the federal government, the media, and the American public regarding how much oil was actually spilling into the Gulf. The figures BP was reporting for public consumption were off by a factor of 10, and BP knew it. But it was impossible to verify or fact check BP’s oil spill figures, because only BP had access to the wellhead and the data from monitoring the flow rate. BP consciously undertook a marketing campaign designed to minimize the impact of the spill, while simultaneously seeking to settle claims for next to nothing.
There are many parallels between the disaster unfolding in Aliso Canyon and the BP Oil Spill, and comparisons between the two are being made by public officials, scientists, environmental experts, attorneys and the media. As natural gas and other harmful chemicals billow out the SoCalGas well unabated, SoCalGas has sought to downplay the effects and impact of the blowout. SoCalGas denies that the blowout is actually an environmental catastrophe, and has repeatedly stated that the risks to human health are minimal. However, like the BP Oil Spill, only SoCalGas has access to the data being collected at the wellhead—and like BP, it is being less than transparent about what is actually flowing from the well. Family pets and wildlife have been dying, and that is giving nearby residents reason to suspect that SoCalGas is not telling them the full story about the health risks stemming from this blowout. It does not help SoCalGas’ credibility that they initially denied the existence of the leak, and told residents that the smell of gas was the result of routine maintenance operations.
SoCalGas Failed to Learn the Lessons of the BP Oil Spill
BP’s Oil Spill Response Plan for the Macondo Well can be summed up in two sentences: “Call Boots & Coots. If they can’t stop it, drill a relief well.” Boots & Coots have earned a reputation as well control specialists, but this should never have been BP’s only plan. BP ignored several options, such as having response technology and equipment readily available and preparing a multi-faceted oil spill response plan that addressed many contingencies. BP routinely ignored safety critical maintenance, and refused to install many safety upgrades to its well equipment because they weren’t specifically required by regulators. These upgrades, such as a double blind shear rams, v-shaped shearing rams, and more powerful battery pods on its blowout preventer, may have stopped the blowout before it happened.
As a result of BP’s failure to plan for, or even consider, the possibility of a catastrophic well failure in the Gulf of Mexico, the only method available to stop the blowout was to drill a relief well—a process that took months, while hydrocarbons flowed into the Gulf of Mexico unabated. Since then, both tighter federal regulations and enhanced industry standards have spurred a shift in corporate conduct regarding offshore contingency planning. Blowout response technology, and the accessibility of that technology, has improved dramatically, and offshore drillers take their responsibility to develop contingency plans much more seriously.
Unfortunately, SoCalGas did not learn the lessons of the BP Oil Spill. Despite being an onshore well, far less complex than the Macondo Well, and potentially with easier access to blowout response technology and equipment, SoCalGas’ response plan was identical to the BP 2010 plan—they called Boots & Coots, and when that didn’t work, they started drilling a relief well.
This failure to plan is a shocking refusal to heed the warnings of the BP disaster. Although SoCalGas knew that the wells in the Aliso Canyon field were old and decaying—this particular well was drilled in 1953 and repurposed in the 1970s—it did not maintain or repair the equipment, plan for a catastrophic well failure, or even have readily available response technology and equipment that could have been used to shut in the well. In fact, SoCalGas removed a malfunctioning critical piece of safety equipment—the Subsurface Safety Valve—instead of repairing it, because it was not required by regulatory agencies to repair or replace it. The safety valve may have been able to shut in the well and stop the blowout before it started, but due to the reckless SoCalGas, it was not available.
The Blowout Is Not Controlled
As weeks turn into months, and the completion of the relief well remains in the distant future, pollutants continue to billow out of the Aliso Canyon well. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that this blowout has already resulted in the release of over 80,000 metric tons of methane, a significant greenhouse gas that is far more detrimental to our climate than carbon dioxide. This amount of methane equates to over 759,000,000 gallons of gasoline burned and over 6,746,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide released.
Meanwhile, residents in Porter Ranch and nearby communities have complained of nose bleeds, headaches, nausea, respiratory infections, and a host of other ailments that have caused many to flee the area indefinitely. Families with young children and elderly relatives are especially concerned with both the acute and latent health effects that they may suffer. Homeowners in the area worry that their property values will take a significant and permanent hit, and already landlords are losing tenants as they flee to safer locations. The reverberating impact of the Aliso Canyon blowout and the resulting relocation is that local businesses are slumping, and workers are losing wages, commissions and other income. These effects are likely to continue for some time, even after the blowout is finally contained.
One difference between the BP Oil Spill and the Aliso Canyon blowout stands out; it took BP 87 days to cap the spill at Deepwater Horizon. Yesterday, January 19, the gas leak in Porter Ranch surpassed the 87 day mark and the fix is still weeks, if not months, away.
If you’ve experienced health problems, been displaced from your home, worry about the lost value of your property, suffered a loss of business revenue or wages, or sustained trauma of any kind due to the Aliso Canyon blowout, we can help you. Call (855) 300-4459 for more information and to have your case reviewed by a member of our experienced legal team. Our experience fighting BP and successfully obtaining justice for the individuals & businesses impacted by the BP Oil Spill will guide and shape our strategy in our pursuit of justice for our clients against SoCalGas.