Aliso Canyon gas storage facility faces another legal hurdle before reopening

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The Southern California Gas Company will not be able to resume operations at its Aliso Canyon gas storage facility right away.
 
On Friday evening, California Court of Appeal judge Lamar Baker temporarily blocked the gas company from injecting natural gas at the facility above Porter Ranch.
 
The ruling says the gas company, the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, have until 6 p.m. Saturday to file their opposition. After that, the judge says he will issue another order either continuing or removing the temporary injunction.

The gas company responded to the appeals court order Friday evening, saying the block puts public safety and reliability at risk.

"The California Public Utilities Commission has said that ‘delaying the resumption of injections after DOGGR has completed its safety determination may itself pose a continued public safety and reliability risk to the Los Angeles Basin.’ We agree with their assessment,” a statement read.
 
“Moreover, the CPUC has directed SoCalGas to maintain natural gas inventories at Aliso Canyon necessary to support the reliability of the region’s natural gas and electricity systems,” the gas company adds. “Unnecessary delays will challenge our ability to meet that directive.”

The SoCalGas did not indicate when or in what context CPUC's statements or directives were made. 

The decision capped off a dramatic afternoon: Earlier in the day, Superior Court Judge John Wiley said he didn't have the authority to act on a petition for a temporary restraining order filed Monday by the L.A. County Counsel's office.
 
The county’s legal team rushed to appeal the decision. The legal skirmish came a week after two state agencies — the California Public Utilities Commission and DOGGR — determined the facility was safe to reopen.

The county argued that Southern California Gas Company has not taken all the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the facility in case of a massive earthquake.

In arguing the county's case before Judge Wiley on Friday,  attorney Louis "Skip" Miller had said SoCal Gas could reopen the facility as soon as Saturday.

“The county wants to make sure we’ve done everything possible to make this facility as safe as possible and they just haven’t finished the job yet," Miller said.

But SoCalGas claimed in a statement that it has "exceeded the requirements of the State’s year and a half long review of safety at Aliso Canyon.”

The gas company said it needed to conduct aerial measurements of background methane levels and test compressors and other equipment before restarting operations. SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride didn't give a timetable for completing those tasks.

Once operations resume, SoCal will visually inspect all wells four times a day, use infrared imaging scans to detect any leaks, and have monitors measuring methane levels. 

"In support of continued safety, Aliso Canyon will be held to what state regulators have called the most rigorous monitoring, inspection, and safety requirements in the nation," Gilbride said. 

Following the hearing, Miller had said he planned to file an appeal with a state appeals court Friday to stop that from happening. 

“We need a court to step in and tell the state regulators to finish the job," Miller said.

The court did step in late Friday afternoon.

One of the gas wells at Aliso Canyon ruptured in October 2015, pouring about 109,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere in the nation’s largest-ever natural gas leak.

The well leaked for four months causing thousands of families relocate away from Porter Ranch and other communities in the northwestern San Fernando Valley. The leak galvanized ongoing opposition to the facility among many in the community, who want the storage field closed for good.

The leaking well was finally capped in February 2016, and in May of that year, the state legislature passed SB 380. It required DOGGR to oversee a comprehensive safety review of the facility before allowing it to reopen. The law also required Public Utilities Commission to sign off before operations resumed.

But the county argued DOGGR hadn't completed the review because it hadn't done seismic testing to address and mitigate the risk of a huge earthquake rupturing multiple wells. The county also said a risk management plan, including a facility-wide emergency response plan, had to be in place before the facility could be deemed safe for operation.

The county's legal filing estimated it would take six to nine months for an earthquake analysis and risk management plan to be completed. "The massive potential for harm from not doing this work far outweighs the harm, if any, from not reopening Aliso Canyon without doing this work," the filing read.

In response, DOGGR argued that SB 380 doesn't require a seismic study before the facility can return to operations. SoCalGas agreed, arguing the law also doesn't require risk management or emergency response plans that specifically address earthquakes.

Meanwhile, the Public Utilities Commission, in a separate filing, challenged the Superior Court's jurisdiction on the matter — an argument that appeared to sway Wiley on Friday.

"If this Court were to attempt to stay the reinjection of gas, it would… be rendering a determination that reinjection of gas is not in the best interests of the public, is not needed to ensure reliability of the gas and electrical systems, and is not safe," the CPUC attorney wrote in their filing. "Those are factual determinations squarely within the Commission's authority, competence, and expertise to make."

The Aliso Canyon facility lies directly on the Santa Susana fault and there are other faults nearby, according to the county's suit. It said seismic experts agree there is a high probability – between 60 and 80 percent – of an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude or greater within the next 50 years.

"The facility cannot withstand such an event," the county argued. "If a large earthquake occurs without sufficient risk mitigation protocols in place, the catastrophe that occurred in October 2015 at Aliso Canyon would be repeated on a much larger and more devastating scale."

DOGGR countered that it consulted with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Laboratories regarding potential geologic and geotechnical hazards.

DOE did recommend conducting an additional study of seismic risk at the facility, but DOGGR maintains there are sufficient enough safety measure in place to reopen while this study is being conducted.

"Neither [DOGGR] nor the National Labs concluded that safe operation of the Facility in the near term is contingent upon prior completion of the studies," DOGGR attorney's wrote.

The Aliso Canyon gas field covers 3,600 acres in the Santa Susana foothills in northern San Fernando Valley. It is dotted by more than 100 wells, most of them more than 50 years old.

This story has been updated and corrected to include the name of the Court of Appeal judge presiding over the case.

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