Turns out the excuse of “my dog ate my homework” can be used by multibillion dollar corporations as well as grade schoolers. The LA Times reported Wednesday that a company owned by Halliburton is making wild excuses about evidence in its involvement in fixing a gas leak, in what may be an attempt to deflect blame for the massive leak from the utility responsible.
The case concerns a California Public Utilities Commission investigation of the Aliso Canyon methane leak 25 miles outside of Los Angeles, where a breach in a natural gas storage well in 2015 sent more than 100,000 metric tons of methane spewing into the atmosphere for months in one of the biggest environmental disasters in U.S. history. The leak caused widespread health impacts among people living in the area and forced some 4,400 residents to relocate while Southern California Gas, the utility that owned the storage well, tried to fix the problem.
SoCalGas didn’t act alone: they hired Boots & Coots (yes, that’s the name), a well control company owned by oilfield services giant Halliburton (the same one that turned a tidy profit from the Iraq war). Unfortunately, Boots & Coots blew it—repeatedly. Between late 2015 and early 2016, the Halliburton subsidiary tried and failed six times to plug the faulty well; SoCalGas finally succeeded in fixing the leak using another tactic in February 2016, four months after it started in October.
An analysis has suggested that this failure is partially due to the fact that Boots & Coots didn’t do any computer modeling about the best ways to stop the leak before going in and trying to fix things. But the LA Times reported that SoCalGas has begun claiming to state regulators that Boots & Coots did do modeling. In an incredibly *cough* unfortunate twist, this modeling was done on one employee’s laptop, which was then stolen from a Best Buy parking lot in December of 2015. Because the work wasn’t saved anywhere else, the company claims, it got lost, and they can’t present it in court.
This excuse that wouldn’t pass a third-grade teachers’ sniff test could have real-world ramifications for any punishment doled out for the disaster. The Commission is still weighing fining or penalizing SoCalGas for the leak and the delayed cleanup process. Public advocates say that the utility’s shareholders should pay for the leak, and be taken to task for any mistakes made in the cleanup process; if Boots & Coots did conduct modeling as it claimed, that’s one less mistake to be held accountable for.
Gizmodo contacted Halliburton for comment, and the company responded by email, stating that “Boots & Coots is a company hired by well owners and operators for well intervention services and only works for those owners or operators under express written contracts, including at Aliso Canyon. While Boots & Coots complies with lawful legal process, it does not comment on pending legal proceedings.”
Incredibly, this isn’t the first time that Halliburton has misplaced key evidence of fossil-fuel-related fuckups. In the 2000s, Halliburton was contracted by BP to manage its Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The April 2010 explosion on the rig, which killed 11 workers and caused 134 million gallons of oil to eventually spill into the Gulf of Mexico, was caused partly in part by a faulty cement mix. Halliburton was convinced in 2013 of a misdemeanor offence for destroying evidence during a federal probe that showed company officials knew about the bad cement but allowed it to be used anyway. (Halliburton also told Gizmodo that linking the Aliso leak and Deepwater Horizon is “wholly inaccurate and misleading.”)
If this sounds fishy to you, you’re not alone. In a motion filed in August, California’s Public Advocates Office, the consumer watchdog of the utilities commission, questioned why the stolen laptop was just being brought up now and why the employee hadn’t backed up this crucial work elsewhere. The filing also points out that the CEO of Sempra Energy, the parent of SoCalGas, sat on the Halliburton board when the utility decided to hire Boots & Coots to plug the leak. Nothing to see here!
Whether or not SoCalGas will be held in any way responsible for the leak remains to be seen. Aliso Canyon, meanwhile, is still in use: the Public Utilities Commission voted just last month to increase gas storage at the facility, among widespread local opposition. And Halliburton doesn’t have to do much talking. Boots & Coots was able to shield itself from more questions from the Public Utilities Commission through a court in Texas, which ruled it didn’t have to answer questions from the California authorities. Must be nice to be a corporation.