“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

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - BY MONTE REEL PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY THOMAS PRIOR

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

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