The underground storage field that was the site of the nation's worst natural gas leak could reopen for use even before the exact cause of the well rupture is known, state gas regulators said Thursday.
That's because Southern California Gas Co. has upgraded equipment at the field so much that operators would get an early warning of potential leaks before they turn disastrous.
"All those things combined give us the confidence that we need that it can safely be put back online," said Alan Walker, petroleum engineer for the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which oversees the gas field.
Officials at DOGGR and its parent agency, the state Department of Conservation, hosted a media tour of SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility on Thursday — the first since a well disastrously ruptured there in October 2015. Similar tours for community stakeholders and elected officials are scheduled for Friday. Officials of the California Public Utilities Commission were also present to answer questions.
The tour was meant to showcase the millions of dollars in enhanced safety equipment that's been installed at the gas field in advance of an expected public hearing and eventual decision on whether the field can resume injecting, storing and withdrawing natural gas. DOGGR is the agency that would have to certify that the field was safe to operate, while the CPUC would make the policy decision on whether the field should reopen. The CPUC is also mandated to perform a study this year about the long-term viability of using Aliso Canyon as the major storage site for natural gas in the Los Angeles Basin.
Some in the community whose families came down with headaches, nausea and other illnesses they associate with the gas well blowout's fumes and chemicals say they're not ready for the field to reopen. Some have been pressuring public officials to shutter it permanently. No matter what happens, they want the state's third-party investigator to complete its analysis of why the well failed before the gas field goes back into service.
"If they're not going to wait for the results, they're clearly being impatient and jumping the gun," said former Porter Ranch resident Helen Ritenour. She moved her family away from the area in September because they were getting sick.
Aliso Canyon gas field is one of the nation's largest underground natural gas storage reservoirs, capable of holding 86 billion cubic feet of gas that would move in an out of the field on some 115 aging wells. On the day a 1953-vintage well broke open, the field was holding about 76 billion cubic feet. But to reduce pressure on the remaining wells, the state's Public Utilities Commission ordered SoCal Gas to reduce the usable gas held underground to 15 billion cubic feet and to halt injections and withdrawals.
The shutdown of the gas field means that large gas users must be far more precise in the amounts of gas that they request and use from storage or the region runs the risk of running short. During the summer, that meant that electrical utilities' supplies could be cut off, potentially causing rolling blackouts — however, numerous steps to stretch the available supply averted any outages. During the winter, homes and small businesses have been the focus of conservation messages to keep from drawing down a lot of natural gas from three other local underground gas storage fields in Santa Clarita, Playa del Rey and Goleta.
The improvements at Aliso Canyon field include new monitors to detect methane gas at the fenceline bordering Sesnon Boulevard and the thousands of Porter Ranch homes. Those residents got the strongest smells during the four months that the well was blowing natural gas — mostly methane, but possibly other toxic chemicals. The monitors were installed as the result of a plea deal for criminal charges from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.
The company has completed extensive, state-mandated testing of 34 of the gas field's 114 wells. The remainder have been temporarily plugged and could be put back in service if they too complete the extensive testing. The well that ruptured, known as SS-25,has been taken out of service permanently.
Each of the 34 wells that SoCal Gas wants to use to resume gas injections underground has new inner tubing. Some 50 miles of steel tubing has been used to upgrade the wells, company officials said. Each of the wells now has gauges to monitor three different areas of pressure inside each well around the clock to detect any anomalies. Previously, pressure on each well was checked once daily.
New rules would also govern the operation of the wells. Before, in a method that was standard in the gas storage industry, gas would be injected and withdrawn through both the center tubing of the well and the donut-shaped space between that tubing and the casing of the well. Critics had described the practice as one that permits a larger volume of gas to move in and out more quickly, but depriving the well of one layer of protection against leaks. In the future, DOGGR will permit gas to be injected and withdrawn only from the center tubing.