Should Aliso Canyon gas facility remain open? SoCalGas calls it essential; not all agree

Should Aliso Canyon gas facility remain open? SoCalGas calls it essential; not all agree

Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Aliso Canyon: Five Years of Tumult

  • Part one: The leak spurred quite literally dozens of lawsuits involving thousands of plaintiffs.
  • Part two: An infographic offers a glimpse of the leak, the effort to stop it and trends in energy consumption in California.
  • Part three: Five years after Aliso Canyon gas leak, public health at the heart of the tug-of-war .
  • Part fourIn Porter Ranch, development returns, but angst endures for some residents.
  • Part five, today: The future of the Aliso Canyon facility – SoCalGas calls it essential, but not all agree.
        • Related: Timeline portrays key moments in five years of Aliso Canyon developments

 

It’s the largest underground natural gas storage facility in the state, serving more than 11 million customers and providing natural gas to 17 power plants.

But for the last several years, residents near the Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon site and environmental advocates have been calling for its closure, arguing that the health and safety risks associated with operating an underground natural gas storage facility in such close proximity to a densely populated area can’t be justified. Their insistence was prompted by a nearly four-month-long gas leak that began in October 2015, during which 109,000 metric tons of methane escaped into the air. It was the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history.

Despite the incident, SoCalGas maintains that closing the facility isn’t feasible because it could result in a natural gas shortage, which in turn would cause prices for the fossil fuel to skyrocket. Representatives for the company also insist the site has never been safer, noting that enhanced safety measures have been implemented to reduce the risk of another disaster.

A cyclist pedals past the entrance to the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility along Sesnon Blvd. in Porter Ranch, CA Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

To keep gas prices affordable and ensure there’s a reliable supply of energy for the region, SoCalGas purchases natural gas when market prices are low, stores it in underground wells, then draws from this stock at times when customer demand is greater than the supply flowing into the area through pipelines. This occurs, for example, on cold winter days when customers heat their homes or during the summer when air-conditioning usage ramps up.

From Aug. 13-18, the western United States experienced a heat wave that resulted in power plants using more gas each day than was delivered to the region through interstate pipelines, said Christine Detz, a spokeswoman for SoCalGas. In Southern California specifically, rolling blackouts on Aug. 14 and 15 meant consumers used about 25% more gas than the amount that flowed into the area, she said.

“Storage was the key asset used to make up for this difference and keep the power plants operating,” she said. “Without storage, the blackouts and outages, and attendant human and economic impacts, would have been longer and more severe.”

Is the facility needed?

There has been debate over how necessary the Aliso Canyon facility is, though.

Alexandra Nagy, state director of Food & Water Watch, said that for two years in the aftermath of the blowout, the facility operated at minimal capacity without creating a hardship for customers. That goes to show the facility is not actually needed to meet the region’s energy needs, she said.

And given California’s clean energy goals, environmental advocates note the state wants to move away from using natural gas and other fossil fuels. The state has set a goal of using 50% renewable energy by 2030 and to increase that to 100% by 2045. About 34% of the state’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2018, according to the California Energy Commission.

“In the last five years alone, we’ve deployed so much clean energy that in the summer, we’ve shifted how much gas we’re relying on,” Nagy said. “We’re moving off of fossil fuel one way or another. We’ve already seen how not using Aliso Canyon can happen.”

But a pipeline which runs through the desert and delivers gas to the L.A. Basin exploded in October 2017, temporarily putting it out of service. SoCalGas slowly ramped up use of the Aliso Canyon facility in response to the loss of natural gas supply to the area.

Environmental advocates accused the utility company of deliberately taking its time repairing the damaged pipeline during that period to convince state regulators that the Aliso Canyon facility is still needed.

SoCalGas has denied that allegation, however. The repair work took time because of challenges associated with replacing miles of buried pipe in a remote location that’s difficult to access because of the terrain, along with extreme weather conditions and rigorous environmental permit requirements, the company said.

Moreover, SoCalGas maintains there still will be a need for natural gas even if Californians increasingly turn to renewable energy. At times when the sun isn’t out or there’s no wind to generate solar or wind energy, natural gas can provide the energy needed to prevent service interruptions, the company said.

A 2018 report by the California Council on Science & Technology examining the long-term viability of underground natural gas storage facilities in the state also determined that Californians will continue to rely on natural gas in the near term.

“The winter peak is caused by the demand for heat, and heat will continue to be provided by gas, not electricity, in that (2020) timeframe,” the report states. “Gas storage is likely to remain a requirement for reliably meeting winter peak gas demand. Looking to the future, California may be able to reduce the need for natural gas, but cannot count on the implementation of its climate policies to fully eliminate the need for gas storage.”

  • Brenda Gutierrez protests in front of the Gas Company Tower in Los Angeles, CA Thursday, October 22, 2020. The group wants Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA. The group brought photos of victims who suffered from the Aliso Canyon gas leak five years ago. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Activists and residents rallied to demand Gov. Newsom to reverse the measures that has allowed Aliso Canyon to continue their withdrawals and demand a timeline to ensure closure of the facility within one year. Protestors with signs on Tampa Ave. at the 118 Freeway in Porter Ranch on Tuesday, February 11, 2020. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Sound
    The gallery will resume inseconds
  • Activists hold photos of victims from the Aliso Canyon gas leak in front of the Gas Company Tower in Los Angeles, CA Thursday, October 22, 2020. The group wants Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Activists honk and wave as they drive along 5th street in front of the Gas Company Tower in Los Angeles, CA Thursday, October 22, 2020. The group wants Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Photos of victims from the Aliso Canyon gas leak are placed on the sidewalk in front of the Gas Company Tower in Los Angeles, CA Thursday, October 22, 2020. The group wants Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA. The group brought photos of victims who suffered from the Aliso Canyon gas leak five years ago. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Protesters lay down pictures of Southern California residents affected by the record-setting gas leak in 2015 at SoCalGasís Aliso Canyon storage facility in Los Angeles outside of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home in Fair Oaks on Tuesday, Oct 20, 2020, to mark the five-year anniversary of the event. They are calling for the closure of the facility. (Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee)

  • Activists gather in front of the Gas Company Tower in Los Angeles, CA Thursday, October 22, 2020. The group wants Governor Gavin Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, CA. The group brought photos of victims who suffered from the Aliso Canyon gas leak five years ago. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Protesters lay down pictures of Southern California residents affected by the record-setting gas leak in 2015 at SoCalGasís Aliso Canyon storage facility in Los Angeles outside of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home in Fair Oaks on Tuesday, Oct 20, 2020, to mark the five-year anniversary of the event. They are calling for the closure of the facility. (Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee)

of

Expand

Whether the facility is taken offline entirely, scales back its operations or perhaps even increases its storage capacity continues to be a topic of public debate.

In July 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown said he wanted the facility to permanently close within 10 years. Then in November 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom requested the California Public Utilities Commission to expedite the planning for that closure. A consulting firm hired to evaluate options for closing the facility will present preliminary findings to the commission on Nov. 17.

At the same time, the CPUC board may review the storage capacity at Aliso Canyon on Nov. 19. The current limit is 34 billion cubic feet, much lower than what it was before the blowout.

SoCalGas had made a pitch to restore capacity to 68.6 billion cubic feet, saying that being able to stock up on more natural gas in preparation for winter would help prevent price volatility and promote reliability in terms of energy supply.

But an administrative law judge recently issued a proposed decision to keep the limit at 34 billion cubic feet for the time being, punting the decision to the CPUC board. Ultimately, it will be up to the board to decide the storage capacity limit.

Najmedin Meshkati, Professor University of Southern California. (Photo courtesy Najmedin Meshkati)

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who served on the CCST committee that reviewed the long-term viability of underground natural gas storage facilities in the state, said these facilities, like oil refineries and power plants, are beneficial to society.

“Closure of this facility would not do society good in the long run,” he said. “They generate employment, taxes. … They are not just a menace. But running them safely should be our goal.”

That said, Meshkati, an expert on complex technological systems who has also studied the root causes of the Aliso Canyon leak, said the safety culture of SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, should be examined.

Will more oversight help?

An investigation ordered by state regulators and conducted by Blade Energy Partners determined the root cause of the 2015 blowout at the Aliso Canyon facility was the rupture of a well casing due to corrosion from the outside caused by contact with groundwater.

The investigation also revealed that there had been more than 60 other casing leaks between the 1970s and the 2015 blowout, yet SoCalGas never conducted any failure investigations, and the utility company lacked “any form of risk assessment focused on well integrity management and lacked systematic practices of external corrosion protection and a real-time, continuous pressure monitoring system for well surveillance,” regulators said at the time.

SoCalGas notes that the investigation did include a review of noise, temperature and pressure surveys at well SS-25 before the leak and found no anomalies to suggest a pre-existing casing failure.

“Additionally, there were no physical observations from well inspections and weekly pressure measurements that indicated an existing problem,” the report reads. “Our interpretation is that SoCalGas complied with the monitoring components of the Operations Standard titled Gas Inventory — Monitoring, Verification and Reporting.”

Since 2015, SoCalGas has also implemented a number of enhanced safety measures, according to the company. These include replacing the inner steel tubing of each approved well and using the casing around the tubing to provide a secondary, physical barrier to guard against future leaks; withdrawing and injecting natural gas only through the inner steel tubing of wells that have passed all tests and been approved by the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) for use; and operating the facility at reduced pressure, as instructed by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“Today, Aliso Canyon is safe to operate and Blade’s report indicates the industry leading safety enhancements and new regulations put in place after the leak should prevent this type of incident from occurring again,” Detz said.

Activists and residents rallied to demand Gov. Newsom to reverse the measures that has allowed Aliso Canyon to continue their withdrawals and demand a timeline to ensure closure of the facility within one year. Protestors with signs on Tampa Ave. at the 118 Freeway in Porter Ranch on Tuesday, February 11, 2020. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

For Meshkati, who served on national panels that investigated the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, fire and oil spill and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, it’s not just SoCalGas’ safety culture that needs to be reviewed.

The overall fragmented nature of the regulatory system that oversees utility companies in the country is itself problematic, and the two main regulatory bodies in the state, CalGEM and the CPUC, have not done a good job enforcing regulations, he said.

“The proof is in the pudding because the accident happened,” he said, citing laxed regulations and insufficient enforcement.

California State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk, who manages CalGEM, said in a statement that “there are multiple layers of oversight to protect public health, safety and the environment.” All underground storage facilities are jointly regulated by the Federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, California Energy Commission, CPUC and CalGEM. Los Angeles city and county agencies and the South Coast Air Quality Management District also have some regulatory authority, he said.

“The regulations for underground natural gas storage were revised and strengthened after the Aliso Canyon leak,” Ntuk stated. “Throughout the development of those regulations, state officials received independent technical input from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratories. California now has the most rigorous underground natural gas storage regulations in America.”

CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper, meanwhile, notes that the commission is evaluating the feasibility of closing the Aliso Canyon facility “while still maintaining gas and electric reliability and just and reasonable rates.”

“The CPUC is an independent agency with professional staff dedicated to ensuring safe and reliable utility services,” Prosper said.

Still, Meshkati suggests having an independent committee formed through the California Council on Science and Technology, which is a nonpartisan council established by the state Legislature, verify all improvements that SoCalGas has said it has implemented and monitor the regulatory bodies’ oversight of the energy industry, he said.

“I’m not suggesting another layer of bureaucracy,” he said. “I’m suggesting a very credible, expert committee to monitor and oversee this process. Because both the industry and the regulatory oversight (bodies), they’ve demonstrated that they can’t do a good job when left alone.”


Aliso Canyon: Five Years of Tumult

  • Part one: The leak spurred quite literally dozens of suits involving thousands of plaintiffs.
  • Part two: An infographic offers a glimpse of the leak, the effort to stop it and trends in energy consumption in California.
  • Part three: Five years after Aliso Canyon gas leak, public health at the heart of the tug-of-war .
  • Part four: In Porter Ranch, development returns, but angst endures for some residents.
  • Part five: The future of the facility is still up in the air.

 

Category Latest Posts