California Residents and Lawmakers Fight Reopening of Aliso Canyon, Site of Huge Natural Gas Blowout

It’s now a waiting game as California regulators decide whether to reopen the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles County, the site of an October 2015 blowout that released an estimated 97,000 metric tons of methane over four months.

Since the leaking well was capped in February 2016, 34 of 114 natural gas wells have been overhauled and certified by the state as safe for moving gas in and out of the underground reservoir. The facility’s operator, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), says that it has made extensive infrastructure enhancements and the facility is ready to go back online.

But residents near Aliso Canyon say they don’t trust SoCalGas or regulators. They point to an investigation, which found that SoCalGas had removed a safety valve that could have prevented the blowout and hadn’t informed regulators. Last year Los Angeles County had to sue SoCalGas to force installation of new valves.

Activists say nothing short of a permanent shutdown is acceptable. And they say SoCalGas has been manufacturing a fake shortage crisis to influence regulators and the governor to allow the facility to open as soon as possible.

SoCalGas Settlement Will Fund Independent Health Study

On February 7, 2017, Southern California Gas Co. agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit with local air quality regulators over the massive blowout at its Aliso Canyon facility.

This settlement, which includes $1 million to fund a three-part health study of the communities impacted by the gas leak, ends months of negotiations between the utility and regulators at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control agency for several Southern California counties.

The study resulting from the settlement will be conducted by independent experts and include three deliverables: a determination of chemical exposure levels in the impacted community; a community health survey; and an analysis of possible associations between symptoms reported in the community and estimated exposure levels. SoCalGas had proposed paying $400,000 for a less comprehensive health study last May.

The four-month-long gas leak caused thousands of residents living in the downwind community of Porter Ranch to relocate. People who stayed behind, even in communities farther afield, reported headaches, dizziness, rashes, and various respiratory irritations.

But even a year after the leak was plugged, residents continue to experience problems that have health experts stumped.

Wayne Nastri, air quality district’s executive officer, said in a statement that the independent study would “build upon existing health information and help inform the community about potential health impacts from the gas leak.”

However, not everyone was satisfied with the settlement and the promised health study.

Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate with the group Consumer Watchdog, told DeSmog that the settlement’s $1 million assessment is not enough for a serious epidemiological study of the health effects of the Aliso Canyon blowout.

“Sempra, parent of SoCalGas, can well afford to pay for the hiring of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to set up an independent advisory committee to oversee the study,” Tucker said.

On February 8 a local physician, Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, spoke out against reopening the facility, referring to it as “an act of negligence.”

Beyond the health assessment, the settlement calls for SoCalGas to pay $5.65 million for leak-related emissions, $1.6 million to regulators for air quality monitoring, and $250,000 to cover officials’ legal fees.

“Air regulators should have held SoCalGas’s feet to the fire and should have levied much bigger penalties, and they could have asked for up to $250,000 in penalties for each day of that leak,” Tucker said.

Residents and Legislators Say Root Cause Analysis Is Necessary

The settlement came a week after a contentious public meeting over the fate of Aliso Canyon was shut down early.

State officials had called meetings on February 1 and 2 to get public comments before determining whether it was safe to resume gas injection. On the agenda were presentations from the California Public Utility Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources about a safety review conducted on the facility. The meeting was the last hurdle before regulators were to decide whether SoCal Gas can resume injecting and withdrawing gas at the storage facility.

About 500 people filled the meeting room at the Woodland Hills Hilton. Soon after the meeting started, Matt Pakucko, head of the community group Save Porter Ranch, grabbed a bullhorn and declared that the residents were taking control of the meeting.

“If you cannot state with a root cause analysis what caused the blowout then you cannot state that the facility is safe,” Pakucko said.

As stony-faced state officials watched, residents testified about illnesses they attribute to the gas storage field, even after the leak was plugged. Save Porter Ranch allowed elected officials to speak, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, City Councilman Mitchell Englander, Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Scott Schmerelson, and newly elected state Senator Henry Stern.

A “root cause investigation,” which would involve dismantling the well that ruptured and removing parts of the well shaft for examination, is still in the planning phase.

On February 6, Stern introduced California Senate Bill 57, which would continue the moratorium on gas injections and withdrawals at Aliso Canyon until an independent “root cause” analysis is complete. Not long after, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced her support for the bill in a letter to Stern.

“I believe it is important for state regulators and the public to be fully aware of what caused the disastrous natural gas leak last year before proceeding to determine whether the facility is safe to reopen,” Feinstein wrote.

SoCalGas spokesperson Chris Gilbride released a statement saying SB 57 would not enhance safety at Aliso Canyon, which he said was needed to meet demand:

“Instead, it needlessly puts more than 20 million people, thousands of businesses, and critical facilities, like electric generators, refineries, universities, and hospitals, at risk of natural gas and electricity service interruption.”

Manufacturing Shortages to Reopen Facility?

Activists, local residents, and some geothermal experts roll their eyes when they hear about the potential service interruptions which Gilbride referenced.

For more than a year, SoCalGas has predicted rolling blackouts if Aliso Canyon remains closed, but those blackouts haven’t materialized.

On January 24 and 25, state oil and gas regulators allowed the utility to withdraw gas from Aliso Canyon, despite a moratorium, in order to meet an increasing “hourly demand” during a cold snap.

Advocacy groups Food and Water Watch and Consumer Watchdog call that withdrawal a fake crisis and petitioned California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to investigate a possible manipulation of gas supply to influence regulators.

In a written statement, Gilbride said the claims of a fake crisis were without basis and credited Aliso Canyon with fending off a potential shortage.

“The rapid changes in customer demand we experienced on Jan. 24 and 25 are examples of the sudden peaks we regularly experience with changes in the weather,” he wrote.

But San Diego engineer Bill Powers, who testifies as an expert before state regulators, told DeSmog the utility’s rationale for the January gas draws doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, saying customer demand “never got close” during that period.

Powers went on to speculate that SoCalGas was in danger of losing money in a “use it or lose it” clause of the California Public Utilities code.

“In California if a facility is not used for more than nine months, and Aliso Canyon has been idle more than that, rate payers can petition to have that utility’s funds reduced,” Powers said. “It’s about money, and I was predicting for weeks that [SoCalGas] would try to withdraw gas.”

For months, Powers has refuted the utility’s claims that Aliso Canyon is needed to meet the region’s needs.

“Aliso Canyon has been a giant piggy bank for SoCalGas, letting them park gas there and having ratepayers pay for them to do it,” he said.

At this point, regulators from DOGGR could give the green (or red) light on reopening Aliso Canyon at any time. However, California Governor Jerry Brown has the ability to overrule their decision, but Brown is holding his cards close.