Q & A: An Interview with Alan Walker, Lead Engineer for Technical Response Team to Control an Unprecedented CA Gas Leak


Aliso Canyon Gas Leak Puts a Spotlight on Crisis Response as Aging Infrastructure and Regulatory Transparency Highlight the Need for High Level Education and Training

Last fall, EGI Affiliate Scientist Alan Walker found himself at the forefront of one of the country’s most serious gas leaks in history. Formerly an EGI Senior Advisor and USTAR Technology Outreach Director, Walker is currently Supervising Oil and Gas Engineer with the California Department of Conservation Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), and since November 12, he has led DOGGR’s Technical Response team charged with oversight of the effort to gain control of the natural gas leak at Aliso Canyon and confirm that it was safely sealed.

On October 23, 2015 a natural gas leak was discovered at a well within the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Field in Los Angeles County, CA. The facility is owned and operated by the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas), which is responsible for operation and maintenance of its wells. For nearly four months, the company was unable to stop the leak, resulting in unprecedented methane emissions.

On  January 6, 2016, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued a proclamation for a State of Emergency in Los Angeles County due to the ongoing natural gas leak. The proclamation allowed all state agencies to use state personnel, equipment, and facilities to ensure a continuous and thorough state response to the incident.

Since discovery of the leak, a team of experienced technical experts from the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources directed oversight of SoCalGas’s efforts to stop the leak at Aliso Canyon. Alan Walker was the Supervising Engineer in charge of that team.

On February 18, 2016 state regulators confirmed that the leaking natural gas well at Aliso Canyon had been permanently sealed.

ASK EGI talked with Walker about his experience with the Aliso Canyon gas leak, how his education and background gave him both the capability and credibility to accomplish the task, and his advice for the next generation of petroleum engineers as they enter the industry.

ASK EGI:  When you began your work at the Department of Conservation, did you know you would be involved with this particular issue?

AW:  No, not at all. Gas storage seemed to be the least concern. I arrived [at DOGGR] in August; Aliso happened in October.

ASK EGI:  How did you first come to be involved with the efforts to address the leak in the well at Aliso Canyon?

AW:  At first it was being managed by district personnel and people near Aliso Canyon. As the situation deteriorated, it became apparent that they needed additional experience (industry) and expertise in gas wells and gas storage. In November, I was asked to head up the effort to get the well under control.

ASK EGI:  Can you share with us any specifics about your role in sealing the leaking well, particularly as they pertain to your experiences at EGI and the University of Utah Master’s in Science in Petroleum Engineering (M.Sc. PE) program?

AW:  [In this role] you needed a comprehensive understanding of gas storage operations, not just wells, and all other aspects of petroleum engineering, such as drilling, fluid dynamics, cementing operations… All of my experience— my early career, work at EGI, and in the M.Sc. PE— was brought to bear in the Aliso Canyon situation— [this was] not a single issue situation; we had to consider fluid dynamics, downhole relief, cement work, what sort of protocol to complete in order to get the well under control.

ASK EGI:  How specifically did your education at the University of Utah in the Petroleum Engineering master’s program and your experience at EGI influence your ability to successfully develop and implement the control measures used to stop the leak?

AW:  Earlier in my career I had worked for Amoco and Questar, so I had broad, general industry knowledge plus experience in gas wells and storage; as time went on I spent more time in management positions and having less contact with technical operations. Going through the rigorous M.Sc. PE program I refreshed and updated my technical knowledge and skills. Innovations that were not available in my early career, such as precision directional drilling, and new technology like tools used to investigate downhole conditions, played a critical role in controlling this well. By going through the M.Sc. program I got totally updated with the new equipment available and diagnostic skills required.

ASK EGI:  As a graduate of the M.Sc. PE program, what made the experience uniquely valuable for you and your current role with the CA Department of Conservation and DOGGR?

AW:  This is a unique university program in that it is driven by industry needs and industry questions. It’s a brand new curriculum that provides relevant exercises and training to the courses and involves professors and instructors with industry experience as well as their academic expertise… Doctor(s) John McLennan, Ian Walton, Rasoul Sorkhabi, Milind Deo, Rich Roehner, and others all provided me critical knowledge that lead to successfully controlling this well. Academic and industry expertise is brought to bear in the classroom and having this level of relevant training is particularly unique.

Another unique and really relevant aspect of the program is the Energy & Society course taught by Drs. Kerry Kelly and Geoff Silcox, dealing with learning to interface with government agencies and the public. This was valuable for me, in CA in particular, where everything is scrutinized by the public and media, and everything really has to be transparent. That class really brought home the importance of dealing with the public, and being able to translate engineering language and oil and gas language for the public. This type of situation requires skills in everything from public speaking to conflict resolution and legislative affairs.

ASK EGI:  Any specifics about the Department of Conservation, the Aliso Canyon gas leak, or the State’s response that you’d like to share with us?

AW:  The team that was there to help with permitting and oversight as the well was brought under control included six engineers— Now, because this was originally an oil field and not a gas storage field and it is relatively old, with most wells drilled in 1950s— we (DOC DOGGR) are doing a comprehensive safety review of the entire field; There are now 22 engineers working to safely bring the field back online— More than needed to regain control of the well. It’s a complete work-over on 114 wells to get the full site back into service to support air conditioning and heating for the city of Los Angeles.

The L.A. basin consumes about 3 billion cubic ft/day [of natural gas]. Aliso can deliver 1.6 billion. This winter deliveries from Aliso Canyon ran above 1.0 Bcf much of the time, so obviously Aliso Canyon is extremely important for reliable natural gas service and power in the L.A. area.

ASK EGI:  Based on your experiences, and considering the changing environment in the energy industry, do you have any advice for students, either those currently in or newly graduating from a Petroleum Engineering program, or, students considering such a path?

Control-cement-confirm sequence; Sesnon Standard #25 well, Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field.

Click on image to view full size.

AW:  Certainly they should consider advanced degrees— an MS; Be mobile: there are jobs out there, but people need to be willing to go to less desirable geographic locations; Be flexible: there are a lot of jobs in the regulatory environment; we [Department of Conservation DOGGR] bring on three to four new technical staff each month. In fact, there are two University of Utah M.Sc. PE graduates from the program working here now: Nigatu Workneh graduated from the University of Utah in May 2015 and started working for DOGGR in February 2016 and Jimmy Schloss will graduate from the U of U in May 2016 and start[ed] working for DOGGR in March, 2016.

Study hard, you don’t want to be the engineer who had the disaster well!

*Alan Walker visited EGI on March 24 and presented a class lecture to students in Professor John McLennan’s CH EN 6167 Production Engineering class along with EGI staff and student researchers.

Impact

Though a comprehensive calculation of the total methane emitted from the Aliso Canyon gas leak will take months to complete, according to the California Air Resources Board, preliminary measurements suggest a total of 94,500 tons of methane were emitted as a result of the leak in Sesnon Standard #25 (SS-25) well in the Aliso Canyon gas storage field. A March 18 study in the journal Science reports that methane release rates during the time period from October 23, 2015 – February 16, 2016 were “nearly double that of the entire Los Angeles region combined.”  Likewise, the scientific advisory panel of Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) recently reported it as the “largest methane leak in U.S. history.” CCAC is a group of countries and partners trying to reduce emissions of short-lived climate change pollutants, such as methane.

The view from above: Porter relief wells at Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Field. Photo courtesy of Alan Walker.

Economic impacts to the State and local governments are also notable, with the well relief and kill operations costing approximately $35 million and residential relocation costs around $300 million. Over 8,000 residents were relocated, two elementary schools closed, and to date there are more than 25 class action lawsuits. Along with these immediately observable impacts comes the impact to Los Angeles County residents and businesses that depend on the facility for delivery of natural gas. L.A. County consumes about 3 billion cubic feet per day. The Aliso Canyon field can deliver approximately 1.6 billion cubic feet per day, so having the site off-line represents a significant potential challenge for the region in maintaining reliable energy delivery.

Aging gas storage sites are an ongoing concern for California and the Aliso Canyon facility— many of the wells developed at the site were drilled before 1954, including SS-25. Lawmakers and the public worry that if they aren’t modernized to current operational safety standards, that another catastrophic leak is only a matter of time. With much of the L.A. area heavily reliant on the Aliso Canyon facility for natural gas, any potential for future blowouts or disruptions to service is a troubling prospect.