Legislation to delay reopening Aliso Canyon gas field pushed by California state senators

Patricia Larcara, a 28-year resident of Porter Ranch is among audience members at a public meeting who were calling for the permanent closure of Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field.
Patricia Larcara, a 28-year resident of Porter Ranch is among audience members at a public meeting who were calling for the permanent closure of Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field. Sharon McNary/KPCC

With California state regulators poised to lift a moratorium on resuming operations at the underground gas storage field that had for months spewed methane into the air, a pair of lawmakers have introduced legislation to keep it closed until one more safety measure can be taken.

Senator Henry Stern, a Democrat who represents Porter Ranch, and Sen. Scott Wilk, a Santa Clarita Republican, have co-authored SB 57, which would continue the moratorium on gas injections and withdrawals at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field until an independent study pinpoints the cause of a 2015 well rupture.

The bi-partisan legislation could be heard by a senate committee as early as next week, Stern said. It's an urgency ordinance that could take effect immediately after it receives two-thirds vote of the Legislature and is signed by the governor.

SoCal Gas considers SB 57 unnecessary, spokesman Chris Gilbride said in a statement. 

“While well intentioned, SB 57 does not enhance safety at Aliso Canyon," Gilbride stated. "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. The CPUC has determined the existing production capacity at Aliso Canyon is insufficient to meet estimated demand in the coming season."

Regulators have not given a specific timeline to make their final decision on reopening the gas fields. Stern said he's confident he can get it signed into law first.

"We hope frankly that we don't have to bring it all the way to the governor's desk for a signature, and that the administration and the gas company will see the wisdom of this patient, prudent approach," Stern said.

He's hoping SoCal Gas and regulators simply agree to conduct the pinpoint study, which is a sort of autopsy that involves dismantling parts of the ruptured well, before re-opening the field. If so, he said he won't keep pressing legislation.

Regulators faced loud community opposition at a public meeting Wednesday night, one of two seeking public input.

Wilk and Stern both have underground gas storage fields in their districts that have had problems.

They split jurisdiction over the Honor Rancho gas storage field, which had a major blowout in 1991 that put the entire field at risk of failing and took months to plug.

The Aliso Canyon gas field near Porter Ranch blew in October 2015, pouring a record amount of natural gas into the atmosphere for about four months and prompting about 8,000 families to relocate for some of that time. Some Porter Ranch residents said Wednesday they continue to suffer illnesses they attribute to chemicals from the gas field.

In 2016, a state law by Stern's predecessor, Sen. Fran Pavley, barred SoCal Gas from refilling the Aliso Canyon gas storage field until it overhauled aging gas wells and upgraded safety measures. That law gave  state utility and gas regulators authority to  certify the field as safe and permit SoCal Gas to resume operations.

Those steps are nearly completed.

The new proposal uses the text Stern's earlier bill known as SB146 to gut and replace the text of Wilk's SB57, transforming it into bi-partisan co-authored bill.

This story has been updated.

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