Los Angeles County sent a message to California oil and gas regulators Wednesday: Keep a natural gas storage field near Porter Ranch out of commission until the cause of a four-month gas well blowout — the largest of its kind in the nation — is fully known.
The county filed suit in Superior Court against the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR. The suit seeks a judgment to keep Southern California Gas Company from refilling the underground gas storage field until an autopsy of the well that burst in 2015 is completed.
For four months, beginning in October 2015, a record amount of natural gas, primarily containing methane but also other chemicals, leaked uncontrollably into the atmosphere. Some 8,000 families sought relocation away from the Porter Ranch area, and many reported becoming ill from the leak and its residue, even after it was sealed in February 2016.
The county says DOGGR prematurely ended its safety review of the gas field and was on the verge of approving the reopening of the field without complying with the conditions set out in a 2016 state law known as SB 380.
"They have not completed the comprehensive safety review required by SB 380, have not addressed the risks of failure at Aliso Canyon and have not completed the root-cause analysis," the lawsuit states.
The county Board of Supervisors authorized the lawsuit in February, and it was filed Wednesday.
That autopsy on the well blowout has barely begun. DOGGR and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) hired an independent company to methodically unearth, dismantle and examine the well, known as SS-25, to determine why it ruptured on Oct. 23, 2015. It is painstaking work, made even more so by the necessity to preserve evidence that might be used in hundreds of lawsuits over the leak.
"It would be improper and frankly irresponsible to allow the facility to restart," without completion of the root-cause analysis or reports on seismic and environmental risks, said Tony Bell, spokesman for Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose north-county district includes Porter Ranch.
DOGGR officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. DOGGR approval to reopen the gas field for operations was not imminent, said spokesman Donald Drysdale. Under SB380, the executive officers of DOGGR and the California PUC would both have to approve the resumption of gas operations at the field.
Southern California Gas Company was also named in the complaint. In a statement, company spokesman Chris Gilbride said SoCal Gas had met the safety requirements the state ordered to reopen the gas field for injections. Any further delay, he said, puts the energy reliability of many businesses at risk.
Gilbride said a federal report found the leak occurred in the outer casing of the well, hundreds of feet below ground. The company's position is that “regardless of what the root cause analysis finds, the state’s comprehensive safety review has already demonstrated that the outer casings of every well approved for use are safe,” Gilbride said.
SoCal Gas applied to the state months ago for permission to refill the gas field, which encompasses dozens of gas injection wells that move gas in and out of a depleted oil reservoir 9,000 feet below the surface of the company's 3,600-acre plant in the Santa Susanna foothills just north of Porter Ranch.
"They've ignored recommended improvements in planning documents from county fire and county public health," Bell said.
The county's lawsuit says that the root cause analysis of the well blowout is an integral part of a safety review mandated by a state law that were to be performed before reinjections into the gas field would be permitted. The county says SoCal Gas' risk management plan required for reopening is inadequate and that the field should not be reopened until DOGGR approves a better plan.
DOGGR officials have "backtracked on this requirement and have accepted an admittedly incomplete risk management plan and an outdated, pre-leak emergency response plan," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit alleges DOGGR has also not addressed the risk that an earthquake on the Santa Susana fault, which runs across the storage field, could rupture other wells.
"An earthquake could cause multiple well blowouts that would dwarf the earlier massive leak and cause even greater human suffering and hardship," the complaint said. "The people living near this facility should not have to live in fear of another major catastrophe."
SoCal Gas normally fills the vast underground gas storage field over the summer when natural gas costs less so that it can provide fuel during the winter at a lower cost. The company also makes money renting storage space to large gas users like refineries and power plants.
The PUC has barred the company from refilling the gas field until the safety review is completed and a public meeting is held about reopening the field. SoCal Gas has been under orders from the PUC to keep the volume of gas in the field at 15 billion cubic feet. That's about the amount of gas the L.A. Basin would use over three to four very cold winter days.
In January, DOGGR certified that SoCal Gas had met the requirements to show that the field could be operated safely. DOGGR personnel have said the improvements made to more than 30 gas injection and withdrawal wells have made Aliso Canyon the safest gas field in the state. DOGGR officials have said the safety measures added to the wells are sufficient to alert the company to any new anomalies or leaks. They also contend that there is no need to wait for the root cause analysis to be completed for the field to return to full operation. If it reopened, the field would be kept at a much lower volume than its prior capacity of 86 billion cubic feet.
However, there has been widespread public and political opposition to reopening the gas field for normal operations. Residents of Porter Ranch, some of whom say they are still experiencing illnesses brought on by the massive gas leak, oppose the reopening. Sen. Henry Stern is moving a bill, SB57, through the legislature to keep the field from being refilled until after the root cause analysis is completed.
The lawsuit filing came a week after county officials were disappointed that another agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, had settled its air quality complaint over the gas leak for $8.5 million, of which just $1 million was to be spent on a study of the leak's health effects. County Department of Public Health officials had said an adequate study could cost $35 million to $40 million over 10 years.