Southern California Gas Company's oft-stated prediction that it could start refilling its underground gas field near Porter Ranch by late summer appears to be slipping into fall or even winter.
Without the extra supply of gas from the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, utilities may have to ask their industrial and individual customers to conserve both gas and electricity through late summer and into the winter to avoid shortages.
SoCal Gas expects to turn the field over to state oil and gas regulators for inspection in late September or early October, Vice President Rodger Schwecke told state energy officials at a recent public workshop on energy reliability. But that action merely starts a longer process to get the field operating again.
What's the status of the Aliso Canyon storage field?
It's been offline for almost a year following a disastrous well blowout that leaked methane for nearly four months. To get it back into operation, SoCal Gas must first either undertake comprehensive testing on wells at the storage field or seal them off. Many of the wells are as old as the one that ruptured in October.
The job of getting enough wells fully inspected to the point that they could be used to inject gas underground -- a two-phase process involving eight separate tests -- has been time consuming because the last six of the tests require oil rigs to be placed above the well to hoist equipment in and out. SoCal Gas has eight rigs at the Aliso Canyon field.
Once all the wells are fully inspected or sealed, SoCal Gas would request authority to resume gas injections from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, also known as DOGGR. Spokeswoman Teresa Schilling said the agency's top experts, along with some from national laboratories at Berkeley and Livermore, would inspect the gas field thoroughly to make sure it is safe to operate.
She declined to estimate how long that process would take. But once it's done, DOGGR would call a public hearing, giving at least 15 days' prior notice. That hearing is required under a bill by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).
DOGGR has not yet set a date for the hearing, but it will be at a public venue close to Porter Ranch beginning in the late afternoon and extend into the evening, to allow the maximum number of people to attend, Schilling said. It will also be live-streamed, with opportunities for people to view and comment online. It is unclear whether the hearing could be completed in a single session, or if the hearing panel would make a decision on the spot or take more time to issue a ruling.
The hearing panel would include officials from DOGGR and its parent agency, the Department of Conservation. DOGGR officials were reaching out to other agencies like the Public Utilities Commission, the California Energy Commission and the South Coast Air Quality Management District for additional panel members.
The Public Utilities Commission must also approve Aliso Canyon's returning to full operation. That agency is investigating the cause of the well rupture. It's not known when that report will be finished, or how its findings might affect the willingness of the PUC to approve resumption of gas injections.
In addition, some environmentalist groups and Porter Ranch residents are trying to persuade the state to keep Aliso Canyon closed. If DOGGR and PUC clear the field to open, opponents could resort to legal action to prevent it.
Attorney Patricia Oliver, who represents residents who reported health problems or were displaced by the four-month long natural gas leak, said she would track the work of DOGGR in certifying the gas field, and if it appears to be deficient, she woudl file a complaint with DOGGR and possibly a petition to superior court.
So if/when injections resume....
Even if the company wins permission to begin injecting gas into the reservoir, it could be a slow job returning the field to its usual volume. That's because new state rules inspired by the well blowout require SoCal Gas to inject and withdraw gas only through the narrow center tubing of the well, which is slower than the company's previous tactic. Before the leak, the company was moving gas in and out of wells using the tubing and the space between the tubing and the casing. That moves a higher volume of gas but is not considered the safest practice in the oil and gas industry.
Other factors slowing the field's return to normal functioning is that the process of testing the wells left them full of various fluids, which would have to be pumped out. The field is at low volume, which means there isn't much pressure to help blow those fluids out of the well, Schwecke said. When full, the field can hold 86 billion cubic feet of gas. Right now, it holds only about 15 billion cubic feet, about what the L.A. Basin would use on three cold days in winter.
Normally, SoCal Gas fills the field in the summer when natural gas is plentiful and cheap and draws on that supply over the winter. That helps the company offer gas at a stable price year round, it says. The gas field is also a profit center because large gas users like refineries and power plants buy their own supplies from out-of-state and pay SoCal Gas to store it at Aliso Canyon and move it on the company's distribution pipes.
In the winter, the price of gas starts to go up because customers in the cold Midwest and East Coast markets are competing for the same supplies. So even if SoCal Gas is able to resume use of Aliso Canyon for gas storage, it could be several months before the field returns to normal, and conservation efforts become less urgent.
The state Energy Commission and other state energy agencies have asked SoCal Gas and power utilities to stretch gas supplies by taking a number of conservation and coordination measures they wouldn't normally do if a large amount of gas were available in storage.
These steps including requiring power plants and other big gas users to more carefully estimate one day in advance how much gas they need for the next day, a process called balancing. Utilities are also making more urgent calls on the public to conserve both gas and electricity.