“With what he’s going to be doing, you don’t want a fiery, you know, torpedo going into the breeding shed”
THE PROFITABLE SECOND LIFE OF THE WORLD’S FASTEST HORSE
The verb to use in polite company is “cover.” The stud covers the mare. Or: About 11 months after she was covered, the mare gave birth to a healthy foal.
The deed itself, here in the hills of Kentucky horse country, is governed by strict rules. Section V, paragraph D of The American Stud
Book Principal Rules and Requirements is clear: “Any foal resulting from or produced by the processes of Artificial Insemination, Embryo Transfer or Transplant, Cloning or any other form of genetic manipulation not herein specified, shall not be eligible for
registration.” No shortcuts, no gimmicks. All thoroughbreds must be the product of live, all-natural, horse-on-horse action.
Herein lurks tension and peril. When one 1,300-pound animal climbs on top of another, both sacrifice their natural sure-footedness for about 20 seconds of knee-buckling magic. Necks can be bitten, causing legs to kick and prompting centers of gravity to shift. An unlucky fall could break a delicate foreleg—a potentially fatal injury for a thoroughbred.
“Things can go wrong,” says Richard Barry, the stallion manager at Ashford Stud, a 2,200-acre farm in Versailles, Ky. “Before any stallion is led into the breeding shed, there’s an awful lot of preparation that has gone on behind the scenes. An awful lot.”
Barry will soon choreograph the most hotly anticipated covering in recent history: American Pharoah’s first coupling with a mare. Pharoah—the name was misspelled early and it stuck—last year became the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown. Now millions, and possibly billions, of dollars in revenue depend on his talents in the breeding shed. In November, about two weeks after American Pharoah retired, his 2016 stud fee was set at $200,000, the highest ever for an unproven, first-year stallion. Only one other active stud—a tested, 15-year-old veteran named Tapit— commands that much per successful cover. Tapit’s first-year fee was $15,000; his rate rose to its current $300,000 only after a decade of producing stakes-winning foals.
But Tapit was no American Pharoah on the track. He wasn’t revered as a once-ina-lifetime freak of nature. He didn’t draw 15,000 fans to a training track on a summer day in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when no races were being run. He wasn’t a savior, the Chosen One who returned his sport to the national spotlight.
“We have never seen interest like this in a horse,” says Barry, an Irishman who’s worked with plenty of celebrated stallions over the past 40 years. “Even Cigar—no disrespect to him—didn’t generate excitement even remotely close to this.”
Cigar was the highest-earning thoroughbred in racing history. Early in 1997, when he was led to the breeding shed for the first time, he seemed a natural-born stud, successfully mounting 34 mares in short order. But weeks passed, and none of those mares got pregnant. Cigar was sterile. “There are no guarantees,” Barry says, smiling and releasing a sigh so heavy it trembles on the edge of a groan. “It’s in the lap of the gods.”
Successful stallions are routinely matched with more than 100 mares in a five-month breeding season. Particularly energetic ones might cover as many as 200 a year. If American Pharoah produces
several seasons of healthy and fast foals, standard pricing norms suggest that his stud fee will multiply exponentially. Very quickly, the $8.6 million he earned during his racing career would begin to look like small change.
The 2016 breeding season begins on Feb. 15. There’s a good chance one of the mares already on Pharoah’s calendar will ovulate shortly before that date. If so, Barry says, the farm could push the season’s first session up by 24 hours to take advantage of her optimal reproductive conditions.
Happy Valentine’s Day, American Pharoah. No pressure.
Green fields roll toward the horizon, and a mid-December sun arcs across a marbled sky. A few stubborn leaves cling to branches. In the distance, American Pharoah ambles along a dirt path, heading for Ashford Stud’s main stallion barn. It’s a cathedral of hand-hewn limestone, floored with nonslip, rubberized bricks. The interior shines with darkly polished, furniture-grade red oak. A cinematic band of light, swirling with motes, streams through a window.
Ashford Stud is owned by Ireland’s Coolmore Stud, a multinational breeding empire run by onetime Irish Senator John Magnier. For decades his Coolmore Boys, as they’re known in Kentucky, were considered icy outsiders who tightly guarded the mysteries of their operation. That reputation was fueled in part by envy. Until 2008 stud fees were tax-exempt under Irish law, an advantage that ate at many of Coolmore’s Kentucky competitors. When Ireland ended the tax break, much of the griping turned into respect for Coolmore, which produces more prized thoroughbreds than any other breeding outfit in the world.
Just before American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, Coolmore struck a deal for his stud rights with the horse’s owner, Ahmed Zayat. After selling the Egyptian beer company Al-Aharam Beverages to Heineken in the early 2000s, Zayat moved to Teaneck, N. J., and established Zayat Racing Stables in nearby Hackensack. His son Justin, 23, the stable’s manager, says the Coolmore contract prevents him from disclosing terms, but he confirms that the family retained a percentage of the
stallion’s potential earnings for themselves.
“We’ll continue to keep close track of American Pharoah, and we’ll also keep close track of his progeny,” Justin says. “Obviously that’s partly because we still have an interest in him, but it’s also because we plan to breed our own mares with him. We’ll probably breed close to 10 mares with him this year.”
Since American Pharoah arrived in Versailles in early November, Barry has been trying to throttle the horse’s metabolism, to pack a couple hundred pounds on him, to calibrate his big, pounding heart to the farm’s slow, pastoral rhythms. “With what he’s going to be doing,” Barry says, “you don’t want a fiery, you know, torpedo going into the breeding shed.”
Around 7 each morning, a farmhand turns out American Pharoah for about three hours of free time in a green field bounded by four-board fences. In the paddock next to Pharoah’s, Barry’s crew has planted a 24-year- old stallion—a wizened old-timer in the stud world—to serve as the young horse’s mentor.
His name is Thunder Gulch. Maybe
you’ve heard of him—in 1995 he won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes and finished just three-quarters of a length behind in the Preakness. Since then, he’s fathered 2,382 foals.
“If you get two young horses next to each other, they’ll likely run around and race each other along the fence line,” says Scott Calder, the farm’s sales and marketing manager. “Thunder Gulch is more interested in eating grass.”
The lessons of the sage seem to be rubbing off. When confronted with an open field, American Pharoah now shows little interest in ripping off quarter-miles, preferring to graze or roll in the mud.
Each day around 10 a.m., Pharoah walks back to his stall, where a farmhand gives him a spruce-up, vacuuming the dust off and bringing out the velveteen shine in his coat with a damp sponge and hand brush. Pharoah spends the rest of his time in his stall, sleeping, eating oats and hay, and staring for hours at all that gleaming, furniture-grade oak.
At Lane’s End, a farm about 2 miles from Ashford, bloodstock manager David Ingordo has been paging through his farm’s lineup of mares, searching for potential matches with Pharoah. He’s looking for specific qualities—speed, endurance, body type—that would complement the champion’s best traits. He could go deep into the horses’ pedigrees, tracing their tangled genetic lines, creating amazingly complex maps of compatibilities with the help of computer programs. Or he could follow his gut.
“Some of my clients, they’re big hedge fund guys, and they’re into microtrading, and for them everything is an algorithm,” Ingordo says. “I try to explain to them that there’s something else you need, too. … An eye. I’m not sure exactly what an eye for a horse is, but it’s real.”
Ingordo first caught sight of American Pharoah in 2013, when the Zayats hired him to help them sell the horse at auction. They wanted $300,000, about average at that particular auction, but they didn’t get it. According to conventional analysis, American Pharoah’s pedigree was good. It wasn’t great.
Ingordo looked at the horse’s big nostrils, his perky ears, the masculine head, the strong neck, the deep saddle girth, his not-too-long back, the good hips, and the quality feet. He urged the Zayats to keep the horse. A few months later, Ingordo stood at a Florida training track, muttering unholy benedictions as Pharoah streaked by. “He was just an awesome specimen, an A-plus-plus,” Ingordo says. “Some horses are so good, they can make their own pedigree.”
True, but racing greatness doesn’t always predict breeding success. Secretariat may have been the greatest horse that ever raced; he wasn’t even close to the greatest stud. That would be Northern Dancer, who from 1965 to 1990 sired hundreds of stakeswinning champions. In the mid-1980s, an era of rampant speculative investment known as the Bluegrass Bubble, his stud fee climbed to $1 million. It’s still the record.
“The No. 1 thing people seem to care about nowadays is fashion,” says Rommy Faversham, a California-based pedigree analyst. “Everybody just wants to say, ‘I’m breeding five of my mares to American Pharoah,’ or whoever is the stallion of the month.”
It’s a risk plenty of thoroughbred owners seem eager to take. If American Pharoah can somehow replicate himself, they’ll be popping Champagne corks in the winner’s circle in three years. Ingordo, for one, expects to send Ashford Stud a list of about 10 mares he’d like to breed to Pharoah.
In a field behind Ingordo’s office, Charles Campbell walks into a large barn of freshly mucked stalls. He’s
Lane’s End’s broodmare manager. He pulls out an iPad, swipes open a spreadsheet, and reviews the ovulation cycles of each of the 137 mares on the farm. Some could soon be carrying Pharoah’s foals.
As soon as the specific mares are identified, Campbell will begin monitoring their ovaries via ultrasound, measuring the follicles every day or two until they reach roughly the size of a golf ball. “You have about two days before the mare’s breeding window closes,” he says. “If you don’t get the time you want, you might as well just cancel.”
Before he arranges for a trailer to shuttle a mare over to Ashford Stud, Campbell will subject her to one last test. He’ll parade a “teaser”—a small stallion condemned to a life of frustration—directly in front of her barn door, to see her reaction.
“These girls, if they’re not interested, they’ll just walk off,” he says, waving a dismissive hand through the air. “But if they are interested, they’ll stand here with their asses squashed against the door, just crying out, ‘Breed me!’ ”
American Pharoah’s mojo—the essence that so many mare owners want to capture—was easiest to see around a racetrack, where he consistently made otherwise sane people lose their minds for a little while.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2015, about eight hours before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, American Pharoah was resting in a cinder-block barn about a mile from the Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Ky. The light inside was weak, and the only sounds were the snuffles and snores of sleeping horses. But in the far corner, near the second-to-last stall, a pair of armed Kentucky Army National Guardsmen in pale green fatigues stood sentinel. “You can walk right up to this stall next to me,” one of them told a visiting reporter, “but no further.”
They’d been on American Pharoah duty for two days, and they couldn’t begin to count the number of people who’d wandered in wanting to snap a selfie or stroke his mane or grab a piece of his hay. All the other horses in the barn, some of them celebrated champions in their own right, simply didn’t exist as far as most visitors were concerned.
“I tell people, ‘We’ve got Mister Ed, a talking horse, in a stall right over there,’ ” the guard said. “But they don’t care about a talking horse. All they care about is American Pharoah.”
That afternoon, before each of the nine races, the horses were paraded in front of the fans in the paddock, a small lawn next to the main track. A crowd of well-barbered men in brown country suits and ladies with tiny hats pinned to their heads calmly observed the stallions and sipped fruity cocktails.
Then Pharoah came out. Everyone needed a glimpse. Spectators flared their elbows and lowered their shoulders, widening their stances. By the time the horse stepped onto the grass, decorum had been abandoned. Amid the jostle, Alex Crabtree and her younger sister, Darrah, battled to maintain their stations about five rows back from the low hedge that separated crowd and horse. “This is history,” said Alex, 23. “We came here from Muncie, Indiana, just so we could see him.”
The sisters rose on their tiptoes—but so did everyone in front of them, leaving them staring at the back of people’s heads. Darrah remained defiantly optimistic. “I think I see his ears,” she said. They held their cell phones overhead, hoping their cameras would catch what their eyes couldn’t see.
About 10 feet behind the Crabtrees, a woman perched on a small brick ledge. “Photos for $5,” she said. Heads turned, and the woman’s eyes widened, surprised that so many people had paid attention to her. She reconsidered: “Photos for $10!” Seconds later she was holding three phones in her left hand, splaying them like playing cards, reaching down with her right hand for a fourth.
The race itself went as expected. Pharoah floated across the finish line 6½ lengths ahead of his nearest challenger, and everyone’s day at the races was stamped with the permanent seal of historical significance. Women hugged. Men cried.
“I feel blessed and lucky,” said a U.S. Coast Guard officer named Walter Lipski from Cape May, N.J. “This is it. He’s done.” A memory less than two minutes old filled him with nostalgia. “I’ll never see anything like that again.”
Later, in the rush to leave the track, supermodel Kate Upton, who’d appeared a couple of days earlier on The Tonight
Show and said, “I just want to make out with American Pharoah,” was led through the crowd by a lost-looking security guard; she implored him to get her back into the roped-off paddock area, into which American Pharoah had just disappeared.
Near the track’s concourse exits, television monitors replayed highlights of Pharoah’s victory, and for a moment the image of the horse was frozen on the screen. “Would you just look at that face,” said Amy Jackson, who runs an equine therapy center in Maryland. She seemed emotionally exhausted. “I mean, really! Look at that face!”
Remember Cigar, the sterile stud? That’s not the worst-case scenario. Cigar’s fertility was insured for $25 million. Coolmore Stud has taken out a similar policy on American Pharoah. Infertility is manageable. A far more threatening possibility is that he might end up like War Emblem, one of the most baffling creatures ever to be dragged into a breeding shed.
He was a champion, a Derby and Preakness winner trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, the same team that guided Pharoah last year. When War Emblem retired in 2002, a prominent Japanese breeding farm bought his stud rights for $17.7 million and put
him on a trans-Pacific flight to begin covering mares the following year.
War Emblem was always a bit cantankerous, Baffert says. But while he was winning high-stakes races, it was easy to give his obstinacy a positive spin, calling it independence or free-spiritedness. Not so at stud. His first year in Japan, he produced only four foals.
His Japanese handlers struggled to figure him out. It wasn’t just that he appeared disinterested in the majority of mares he met; he seemed downright repelled by many of them. He reserved particular disdain for large ones. “And if he hates a type of mare,” his veterinarian, Nobuo Tsunoda, told an industry website in 2008, “he attacks them.” Several sports blogs and websites speculated that War Emblem might be gay.
They tried hormone supplements. They separated him from other studs, believing he might have found them intimidating. They flew in animal behaviorists for “intensive therapy” sessions.
War Emblem averaged just nine foals a year during his stud career, and last year, after several consecutive seasons of total noncompliance, his owners gave up on him. With the help of a $50,000 donation from Baffert, War Emblem flew back to the U.S. in October to be stabled near Lexington at a farm called Old Friends. It’s a retirement home of sorts.
Espinoza visited War Emblem three days before he rode American Pharoah to victory at the Breeders’ Cup. He loves both horses—one was his first Kentucky Derby winner, the other gave him the Triple Crown. But temperamentally, he says, the two stallions couldn’t be more different. “War Emblem was always a little stubborn, but American Pharoah, he’s just so sweet,” Espinoza says. “He’s like a little pet.”
Breeders latch on to statements like that, interpreting them as hopeful portents. The folks at Ashford Stud marvel at Pharoah’s patience and conscientiousness. They echo Justin Zayat’s description of him: “A beast on the track and a teddy bear in the stall.”
It makes him easy to handle. But he’s not getting $200,000 to cuddle. “I’d like to see him get a little bit tougher once he starts breeding, to get the testosterone flowing,” Barry says. “I’m not talking about him becoming a savage or anything close to that. But this is the moment when boys turn into men, essentially.”
The breeding shed is a short walk from the main stallion barn. Inside, big blue pads, the kind you might see in a high school gym, line the walls. The floor is cushioned with the chopped-up tire treads used in playgrounds to soften falls.
Minutes before American Pharoah enters the shed for his first real tryst this month, a handler will lead in the mare. Brown leather pads evoking 1920s football gear will be strapped around her lower legs. Near the center of the shed, she’ll be positioned in front of a mound of synthetic matting. That’s when a miniature stallion, Ashford Stud’s resident fluffer, will arrive and climb the mound of mats so he can get high enough to jump her. A thick apron tied around his waist will keep him from taking things too far.
That’s American Pharoah’s job. As he’s led toward the mare, a small crowd will converge upon the scene. One person, wearing a helmet, will stand in front of the mare, manipulating her front leg, forcing her to shift more of her weight to the hindquarters to prevent back-kicking. Another person will handle the twitch—a stick with a loop of rope on the end, which is tied to the mare’s upper lip; raising it helps keep the mare’s head up, which keeps her backside down. Somebody else will stand directly beside the two animals, ready to provide Pharoah with a delicate assist, manually steering him into position if necessary. (It reduces the need for multiple jumps.) A fourth person will capture everything on video, in case lawyers, insurance investigators, Jockey Club officials, or anyone else needs to review the footage.
Pharoah, by this point, will have already caught an up-close glimpse of a female. “Before his first time, we’ll bring in an old mare that’s basically bombproof,” Barry says. “What I mean by that is, he can jump up and down on her to figure out what we want him to do. Once he figures that out, he should be set.”
Justin Zayat spoke with the folks at Ashford Stud in December. They informed him that they’d just tested American Pharoah’s reactions in the breeding shed for the first time.
“They just told me the first time that they brought him for what they call a test breeding, he was just like he was on the racetrack,” Zayat said. “A champion.” <BW>
Steve Conley got the call early on Nov. 5. A natural gas storage well was leaking methane into the air at Aliso Canyon, near a Los Angeles suburb, and no one knew just how bad it was— could he get a read on it? Conley, an atmospheric scientist and a pilot, rushed to a small airport northeast of Sacramento. He’s flown more than 1,500 hours measuring emissions over oil and gas operations in one of his two single-engine Mooneys. Tubes mounted on each Mooney’s right wing suck air into two chemical analyzers stored in the luggage compartment. Soon, Conley was soaring south across California’s Central Valley.
The leak had been spewing for about two weeks. Southern California Gas Co., the subsidiary of Sempra Energy that owns the facility at Aliso Canyon, had tried and failed to kill it. The previous night, homeowners from the nearby neighborhood of Porter Ranch had gathered to rail about the rotten-egg smell taking over their community. Tim O’Connor, a lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), attended the meeting, and feared the leak could be big enough to threaten not only the local community but also the earth’s climate.
As the Mooney flew closer, O’Connor, who’d hired Conley, phoned Aliso’s on-site incident commander with a heads-up about the flight. The SoCalGas staffer refused to approve the flyby, O’Connor says. “They said that the events on the hill were too dangerous and any additional distraction at that time could create an unsafe condition.” This didn’t make immediate sense to O’Connor. Conley wanted to fly a mile downwind of the leak to measure its plume, not directly overhead, and the whole area bordered the flight path of a nearby airport—planes in the distance were a common sight. Nevertheless, O’Connor gave SoCalGas the benefit of the doubt. Conley was a few miles out when O’Connor texted, instructing him to turn around. SoCalGas stands by its reasoning.
Two days later, Conley again flew to Aliso, this time on the state’s dime. Conley started flying back and forth downwind of the site, taking measurements and gaining elevation with each pass. As data populated his screen, he recalls thinking, “What the hell is that?” The levels appeared to be at least 15 times greater than he’d ever observed. Equipment malfunction? The second analyzer showed the same readout. “This isn’t an error,” he concluded. After 17 laps, he reached the top of the plume and headed home.
Based on Conley’s readings, the state would estimate that in less than a month, Aliso had released more than 68 million pounds of methane. Since then, it’s leaked 132 million pounds more, the state says, based on Conley’s subsequent flights. That makes Aliso potentially the largest-ever single release of methane into the atmosphere—at least, the largest ever recorded. Even as the U.S. pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, methane leaks large and small are going unaddressed.
Roughly 95 percent of the natural gas that fuels stovetops and power plants is methane. Scientists take pains to observe it because, while it doesn’t last in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it’s a far more potent greenhouse gas while it’s there. Methane burns quite cleanly compared with coal, but when it escapes into the air, it has 84 times the global warming impact as carbon dioxide over 20 years.
When methane leaks, it’s not obvious like an oil spill. Methane’s invisible and, for most of its supply chain, has no odor. That helps explain why there’s been such a gap in public awareness of what a growing body of research has found: There are pervasive, daily methane leaks across the country’s energy infrastructure that far outstrip federal estimates. And the bulk of releases come from “super emitters,” which range from persistently malfunctioning valves to one-time events.
Aliso’s drawn attention to methane like no other emission. It’s releasing in an urban area, the one part of the supply chain where methane’s mixed with sulfurous chemicals so leaks can be detected by smell. And researchers and activists have made the leak’s massive plume a must-see. On Dec. 20, EDF released the first infrared aerial footage of the Aliso leak. The video, taken by O’Connor and a colleague in a rented Cessna, shows a haunting black cloud streaming endlessly from the hillside. Viewed more than 1.3 million times on YouTube, the viral image shows the threat that has led thousands of Angelenos to leave their homes. It also exposes a major challenge to the climate benefits of the country’s shift from coal to gas. SoCalGas has vowed to mitigate the greenhouse impacts from Aliso, though it hasn’t specified how—or how much it will cost.
Before there were 30,000 residents living on
pleasant streets like Via Botticelli and Vista Grande Way, Porter Ranch was just the scrubby foothills of the Santa Susana mountains, which run along the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. In the late 1930s, an oil company owned by J. Paul Getty started drilling for crude among the ridges. Wells there produced for decades before depleting the reserves.
In 1971, SoCalGas bought the Aliso Canyon site and converted it to storage for natural gas. SoCalGas uses the 115 wells there to inject gas into the same underground field that once held oil. It’s the fifth-largest among about 400 such storage facilities nationwide and supplies 11 million customers across the Los Angeles basin. Since developers built subdivisions starting in the late 1980s, the community peacefully, if unknowingly, coexisted with the subterranean lake of gas.
Then, late in the day on Friday, Oct. 23, workers around Well SS-25 noticed the sulfurous smell. At the time, “it was not something that was alarming to us,” says Jimmie Cho, senior vice president for gas operations and systems integrity at SoCalGas. Minor leaks are routine in the industry. The workers went home for the night.
The next day, SoCalGas tried to stop the leak by using a typical technique of forcing a salty fluid down the well to overpower the upward pressure of the escaping gas. Cho says to imagine holding a giant straw between your lips, tilting your head back, and blowing, as liquid is poured into the open end. “You fill the straw up with fluid, and you’re pushing against it, you’ll keep bubbling that liquid,” Cho says. But “at some point, there will be so much liquid, your lungs won’t be able to actually push any more.”
It didn’t work. So the company called in Boots & Coots, a Halliburton subsidiary based in Houston that specializes in wrangling control of leaky wells. SoCalGas also stopped injecting new gas into the facility, which was close to its peak capacity, about 86 billion cubic feet, as the company prepared for winter demand.
Initially, the gas wasn’t spewing directly from the wellhead. Boots & Coots determined it was seeping from the well’s casing about 500 feet below the ground. The gas worked its way up and out into the atmosphere through the soil. “It was almost like gas was coming up through a sponge and making its way through various cracks and natural parts of the geology,” Cho says.
Boots & Coots tried to more forcefully shove brine down SS-25 only to discover an ice plug had formed in the well, complicating access to the leak. Cho says the ice may have resulted from a pressure imbalance during an early kill attempt. Breaking down the ice required long coiled tubing, hauled in from Louisiana on four semi-trucks, that works like a plumber’s snake. In early November, Boots & Coots broke through the ice plug. Then, on Nov. 13—a day, Cho says, that is “etched in our memory”—another kill attempt only made matters worse.
As Boots & Coots again pushed brine down the shaft, the upward pressure of the leak dramatically overwhelmed the downward force of the fluid. Cho says the brine formed a channel through the soil as it came back up to the surface, which created a highway of sorts for the liquid—and later gas— to escape faster. “It went from very diffuse to very focused. That may have been part of the reason why ... the [leak] rate may have changed,” Cho says cautiously. Conley found that by Nov. 28, emissions were about 16 percent higher than he’d measured a few days before the kill attempt. At its peak, Aliso emitted almost 128,000 pounds of methane an hour, Conley estimates. (Boots & Coots deferred comment to SoCalGas.)
On Nov. 19, after another kill attempt, SoCalGas announced a Plan B that may sound familiar from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—digging a relief well to intercept SS-25 at its base, about 8,600 feet below ground. The drilling started on Dec. 4. SoCalGas said around that time it could take months to complete the task.
By the middle of December, reality was setting in
at Porter Ranch that the leak wouldn’t be plugged anytime soon. More residents began asking SoCalGas to pay for temporary housing, and the company opened an office in a shopping center, wedged between SoCal Blow Dry Bar and Visionmax Optometry, to field their complaints. Hundreds of people have been showing up each day, and about 4,460 households are living in hotels or other short-term accommodations, at SoCalGas’s expense.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., courted panicked residents, saying SoCalGas should pay for what they called unknown health risks and wrecked property values. More than 2,000 people showed up for a December meeting organized by Erin Brockovich and the lawyers she works with.
A month later, on a Friday evening in mid-January, hundreds of Porter Ranch residents packed the pews of Shepherd of the Hills Church. Onstage, 11 state officials sat at long tables, resembling a modern-day Last Supper. Their backdrop was a set of partially constructed stone houses, under way in early preparation for the church’s popular Broadway-style Easter pageant. Dudley Rutherford commanded the attention of the crowd as only a megachurch pastor can. “Good evening!” he boomed. Rutherford asked the crowd not to berate the officials, who were there to provide information on the leak, then added, “We pray for you and for all the people on the stage.”
The state officials attempted to comfort the audience, offering assurances that the levels of gas compounds detected in Porter Ranch posed no long-term health risks. They vowed to hold SoCalGas accountable, both to residents and for the environmental damage done by the emissions. Then homeowners snaked down the long aisles for a turn at the mic. They told stories of headaches and bloody noses, dizziness and nausea, all known side effects from the smelly chemicals added to the methane. Some suggested their own inventions for capturing the renegade gas. Others vented about delays in getting relocated.
Mostly, they expressed deep insecurity about losing their nest eggs if their neighborhood is deemed undesirable and anxiety about possible health effects, from both SS-25 and smaller leaks they suspect have happened over the years. “I found out I have a 7-pound Chihuahua whose blood oxygen level is too low,” said a homeowner named Lisa. “I can’t keep him in the house. He has to go out. Maybe I shouldn’t have stayed.” A fifth-grader said his pet fish kept listing on its side. “I think that it’s dying,” the boy said. “Could the gas be affecting animals too and not just people?”
An older man noted that the BP oil spill cost billions in property and environmental damage. He asked, to loud applause, “Is there a chance that the gas company can go bankrupt and just walk away from it?” That’s unlikely, and Sempra says it will be able to cover the costs of the leak. But Aliso still provides a topical cautionary tale.
Around 2009, as fracking wells popped up across the
U.S., public debate focused on concerns over contaminated water. In an iconic, if much-disputed, scene in the documentary
Gasland, filmmaker Josh Fox lights tap water on fire. But since
then, scientists have begun to fret about how much methane is escaping into the atmosphere. Too much could counteract the climate benefits of the cleaner-burning gas.
Early studies relied on theoretical modeling or limited physical measurements. Fracking supporters seized on findings that reported low emissions, while opponents touted estimates of rates so high that natural gas appeared dirtier than coal. “That was an unresolvable conversation,” says Steven Hamburg, EDF’s chief scientist. So in 2012, EDF started the largest-ever series of peer-reviewed studies to measure emissions across the oil and gas supply chain. It committed $18 million to fund 16 academic studies not just at production sites but along pipelines and distribution networks, at storage facilities like Aliso, and to endpoints in cities, where gas flows to heat homes and cook meals. Most of the funding came from foundations, with another third coming from oil and gas companies. “One of the biggest questions is, if you had the wrench and wanted to tighten down the leaks, where would you start?” says Tom Ryerson, a methane researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His work isn’t funded by EDF.
The findings in North Texas’s Barnett shale field, the first basin to widely use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) methods, were frightening and have proven typical. There, researchers measured emissions 90 percent higher than the estimates in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and they found that 10 percent of facilities accounted for 90 percent of the leaks. Some leaks were “persistent,” like unlit flares, malfunctioning valves, or other avoidable situations. Others were “episodic,” like Aliso, though at a smaller scale. Many could be prevented with better monitoring and operations. The patterns continued in California, where the state found methane emissions are as much as 74 percent higher than previous estimates. Regional air quality inspectors visited Aliso in early December and found, in addition to the big leak at SS-25, 15 wells emitting methane. The minor leaks were quickly fixed.
The EPA in August proposed the first federal rules to limit methane leaks from oil and gas operations, but they mostly cover new facilities. About 90 percent of emissions come from older sources, according to an EDF study by the consulting firm ICF International. The American Petroleum Institute, in a December call with reporters, said the industry has reduced leaks and that “voluntary methods are the best way to reduce methane emissions from existing sources.”
Most gas regulation falls to states, which generally haven’t focused on leak detection and prevention. Colorado was the first to require regular monitoring and preventive maintenance. In early February, California proposed rules that would require quarterly inspection of both new and existing gas production sites, and emergency regulations now mandate daily monitoring of storage facilities such as Aliso.
To keep pressure on authorities, EDF has stepped up monitoring. On a Tuesday in January, Bud McCorkle and Andrew John, of Leak Surveys Inc., took a helicopter up to look for what McCorkle called “a real eyebrow raiser” in the Barnett shale field to illustrate that Aliso is hardly the only trouble spot. As John piloted the chopper over mile after mile of oil and gas infrastructure, McCorkle said, “Sometimes you will see a hatch open, and I wonder if it was an accident or if they want to relieve the pressure.” The ICF study found that methane emissions could be reduced by 40 percent with simple, lowcost fixes—like closing hatches.
It didn’t take long for McCorkle to spy a leak. “We’ve got an emission coming off an unlit flare,” he said. “That single galvanized stack over there.” On the ground, a man was visible inside the fenced-in site, standing next to a white pickup truck. He looked up as the helicopter circled above, seemingly unaware that methane was escaping nearby. When McCorkle briefly got a clear infrared shot, he said the unlit flare “just looks like a burning cigarette,” a trail of methane twisting up into the atmosphere.
long line of others have sued SoCalGas for the Aliso blowout. Los Angeles prosecutors filed misdemeanor criminal charges against the utility for not immediately reporting the leak. (SoCalGas says it will respond to the case “through the judicial process.”) A regional air quality regulator said in a suit that the company’s negligence caused the leak, and multiple state agencies are conducting their own investigations. SoCalGas’s parent, Sempra Energy, has said it has more than $1 billion in insurance coverage that it believes will cover many of the current and expected claims.
In a worst-case scenario, Sempra could face a bill of as much as $900 million, says Brandon Barnes, an energy litigation analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. If the leak is stopped by the end of March, the total cost could be about $250 million, he estimates. That includes roughly $115 million to stop the leak and relocate families, $40 million for civil liabilities, and $11 million in state fines. One of the biggest expenses could come from mitigating the climate damage, which the state says it will require. Buying carbon offsets would cost about $92 million in Barnes’s calculations. SoCalGas won’t comment on the liabilities. “Our focus is to stop the leak,” Cho says. He says that starting on Nov. 11, the company has purposefully withdrawn gas from the facility to reduce the pressure, which cut the rate of emissions by 64 percent. And as of Feb. 8, the relief well was within 20 feet of intercepting the bottom of SS-25, at which point SoCalGas expects to use mud and concrete to permanently plug the well. The final steps of drilling are slow, to allow for regular stops to “ping” measurements to the well. “You want to be on center and on target,” Cho says. “You want to do as many pings as necessary to reinforce, ‘I’m getting closer, closer, closer. I’m there.’ ” <BW> �
California Attorney General Kamala Harris and a
“Is there a chance that the gas company can go bankrupt and just walk away from it?”
Porter Ranch parents and students protest on Dec. 11
Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. (left); twitches and leather (right) at nearby Lane’s End stable, used on a mare during covering kicking boots