Environment & Science

SoCal Gas says Porter Ranch inquiry faces delay, state disagrees

The boundary of Southern California Gas Co. property, where the Aliso Canyon Storage Field is located.
The boundary of Southern California Gas Co. property, where the Aliso Canyon Storage Field is located.
David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

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The head of Southern California Gas Co.'s parent firm says the investigation into the cause of last year's Porter Ranch gas leak is facing a costly delay, but the two state agencies overseeing the inquiry dispute that assessment. 

Debra Reed, CEO of SoCal Gas' parent company Sempra Energy, broached the subject Wednesday during a quarterly earnings call with investors. She was explaining why the utility had spent an additional $36 million on the leak and its aftermath over the past three months, bringing SoCal Gas' costs so far to $763 million.

"One of the key things that caused our estimate to go up was the work being done on the root cause analysis and the fact that the third parties doing work on that are expecting a delay," Reed said. 

Spokesman for the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the agencies overseeing the investigation, said talk of a delay is news to them.

"I do not know what they are referencing," said PUC spokeswoman Terrie Prosper.

Division of Oil and Gas spokesman Donald Drysdale said in an emailed statement he was "not sure why SoCal [Gas] would say that the analysis is delayed since it is not a participant [in the investigation] and there was no commitment to a timeline."

The utility learned of the delay from the PUC's safety and enforcement division, said SoCal Gas spokesman Chris Gilbride. That division communicates with Blade Energy Partners, the Houston firm hired to conduct the inquiry.

Based on its discussions with the parties involved, the gas company had previously estimated that the leak investigation would conclude by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, said Gilbride. It now estimates that the work will be wrapped up by the middle of next year, he said.

Because the firm had relayed the earlier estimate in its previous quarterly earnings call, it was legally required to inform its investors of the revised estimate in Wednesday's call, said Gilbride.

The timeline is "not set in stone" and is subject to further revision in the future, he said.

Blade Energy did not respond to requests for comment. 

The scope of the analysis to be performed by the Houston company has not changed,  said the Division of Oil and Gas' Drysdale. 

While there is no set timetable for finishing the inquiry, Blade Energy is making progress, Drysdale and the PUC's Prosper said. They had no estimate for when it might be completed.

Both agencies' focus is on conducting "a thorough investigation as expeditiously as possible, while at the same time ensuring that the evidence extraction work is being done safely and transparently," Prosper wrote in an email.
    
The timing of the analysis matters because some politicians who represent the area have called for SoCal Gas to hold off on renewing operations at the underground storage field until after investigators determine what caused the well break.

The utility says it should not have to wait for the state's investigation to be completed before resuming gas injections to refill the underground Aliso Canyon storage field. Last week SoCal Gas asked the Division of Oil and Gas to inspect the field to certify it's safe to resume injecting gas underground. 

Some Porter Ranch residents and environmental groups have demanded that the field be permanently closed.

The Aliso Canyon field has 114 wells, with an average age of over 52 years. SoCal Gas says it has done extensive work to replace the inner tubing and much of the equipment on the wells to reduce the chances that another well will rupture. 

The state-directed inquiry began in January with data collection from the site while the leak was still active. Once the leak was plugged, crews collected more evidence from around the ruined well.

The leak caused much of the soil and structure around the head of the well to erode, so the third step was filling the crater and restoring the well site. Workers poured a concrete pad and prepared the area for crews to assemble a drilling rig above the well. That's as far as the inquiry has gotten.

The next steps call for the drilling rig to hoist thousands of feet of the well's inner tubing, and a few hundred feet of the outer casing, out of the ground. That material will be sent to labs for examination. Eventually Blade Energy will issue a report with its findings.
    
 The firm will position cameras at the well site so attorneys for plaintiffs in some 180 lawsuits against SoCal Gas can monitor the extraction of the well's tubing and casing.

This story has been updated to clarify that Chris Gilbride said SoCal Gas learned of the delay from the PUC's safety and enforcement division, rather than directly from Blade Energy Partners.