Environment & Science

As state clears gas field to reopen, governor calls for it to close

File: Real-time pressure monitoring transmitters are part of a series of new safety enhancements at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch. The transmitters are displayed during a media event on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
File: Real-time pressure monitoring transmitters are part of a series of new safety enhancements at the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility near Porter Ranch. The transmitters are displayed during a media event on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Two state agencies cleared the Aliso Canyon gas storage field to resume operations on Wednesday, while the same afternoon Governor Jerry Brown called for it to eventually close.

It's an odd juxtaposition of different state entities acting simultaneously on the controversial gas storage field, where a well ruptured in late 2015 and drove thousands of people from their homes. 

The well could soon resume operations, according to a joint announcement by officials of the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

However, in a letter dated Wednesday, State Energy Commission Chairman Robert B. Weisenmiller said, "Governor Brown has asked me to plan for the permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, and I urge the California Public Utilities Commission to do the same."

The news came in Weisenmiller's letter to PUC chairman Michael Picker.

"My staff is prepared to work with the CPUC and other agencies on a plan to phase out the use of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility within ten years," Weisenmiller said.
 
The PUC and DOGGR order was something that Southern California Gas Company has long awaited, coming months after it completed an extensive safety overhaul of its Aliso Canyon gas storage field.
 
The PUC/DOGGR decision means SoCal Gas is cleared to resume injecting gas into the underground gas reservoir  and draw it out to serve customers. After a gas well ruptured in October 2015, the state ordered the gas level to be drawn down and it placed a moratorium on refilling the field until extensive safety upgrades and inspections were completed.

SoCal Gas will not immediately resume injecting gas into the field, said company spokesman Chris Gilbride in an email statement. First, the company is required to conduct overflights with instruments that measure the amount of methane coming off the field before injections begin.

"We estimate it could be a week or two to resume operation of the field," said Timothy Sullivan, executive director of the Public Utilities Commission.

Sullivan said Weisenmiller's call for Aliso to be closed is just one element of many that will go into the PUC's eventual decision whether to permit it to remain open.

Operations at the field will be different from before the gas well blowout, though. The company must keep the volume and pressure of gas at less than one-third of what it was in October 2015 when a gas well ruptured, causing the nation's largest recorded uncontrolled natural gas leak, the state agencies ordered.

The gas field, when operating at full capacity, can hold 86 billion cubic feet of gas that can be withdrawn for customers. Under the new rules, the field could hold just 23.6 billion cubic feet. That amount is what state energy officials calculate is enough gas to avoid a shortage when demand peaks on the state's hottest or coldest weather streaks.

The company had repeatedly stated that the moratorium on operations at the gas field could put the region at risk of a gas shortage and power outages on hot days.

Normally, there is enough gas moving through the SoCal Gas network of pipelines to serve homes and businesses as well as large users like gas-fired power plants. However, when the amount of gas those plants order is less than what they use, SoCal Gas draws the extra from storage.

With the storage field stalled, the company warned power outages could occur if gas demand peaked on hot or cold days. The energy industry responded to the lack of storage by adopting much more careful rules for ordering and using gas. No gas shortage-related outages occurred since the moratorium.
 
An independent research firm is still analyzing the cause of the gas well break. A state inquiry required by a law passed last year requires the state legislature to conduct an assessment of the long-term viability of all natural gas storage facilities in California, including the Aliso Canyon field.

SoCal Gas said the Aliso gas field is necessary for the region’s energy reliability and that the safety overhaul of the gas field means it now meets or exceeds state requirements, Gilbride said.

One of the key changes was to limit the movement of gas in and out of the field only through the center tubing of each well. Previously, it moved gas through the center tubing as well as the donut-shaped space between that tubing and the well casing. That is a method that, while not unusual in the gas industry, is not a best practice because that donut-shaped space is meant to be a secondary layer of protection against a leak or break in a gas well.

The company constantly monitors gas pressure in all its wells, staffers visually inspect each well four times a day and use infrared cameras to detect methane leaks, Gilbride said.

Issam Najm, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council said there remains widespread local opposition to operations resuming at the gas storage field.   In particular, he objected to the state order that requires SoCal Gas to keep methane emissions from the gas field below 250 kilograms per hour. That equals 6,000 kilograms a day, or 6 metric tons of methane.

That amount is too high, he said, given that the gas well blowout, over the course of about four months is estimated to have put 109,000 metric tons of methane into the air.

The limit that appears in the state order was set by the California Air Resources Board based on a survey of methane levels typically seen at the Aliso Canyon and other gas storage fields, spokesman Dave Clegern said.

“It’s not a lot, given the size of that facility,” Clegern said of Aliso Canyon gas field, which covers thousands of acres and contains more than 100 gas wells. The limit is low enough that a leak or other mishap would clearly show up on infrared video, he said.

Several state and local politicians were not happy with the clearance to reopen.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was disappointed at the reopening. The county planned to ask a judge for an order to block it, her spokesman Tony Bell said.

“The facility should remain closed until the root cause analysis and energy reliability study are completed and the health concerns of our impacted residents are fully addressed to the satisfaction of county health officials,” Barger said.

Los Angeles County has sued to force SoCal Gas to pay for an extensive health study of nearby residents. While many were sickened during the gas leak, some continue to report illnesses. SoCal Gas agreed to fund a health study as part of its settlement with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the amount is far below the $35 million or more the county Department of Public Health considers necessary.

Sen. Henry Stern, who represents the Porter Ranch area, authored a bill, SB57,  to keep the moratorium on operations intact at least until the investigation into the well break is completed and the ongoing earthquake risk to more than 100 other aging wells is studied. He called the reopening decision premature and unnecessary.

“While the Energy Commission’s suggestion to shut Aliso down and replace it with clean energy over the next decade is encouraging, the community won’t have comfort unless there are real teeth to this plan,” Stern said in an email statement.

Rep. Brad Sherman, whose family lives in Porter Ranch, criticized state regulators for declining to require subsurface safety valves on the remaining gas wells at Aliso among its newly-drafted rules for gas storage fields. The well that ruptured came equipped with an underground safety valve that failed decades ago and was not replaced.

“They refuse to commit to subsurface safety valves. Not now. Not later,” Sherman said in an email statement.  “Just because California’s standards for the storage of natural gas are stronger than those in other states or the federal government, does not mean they are sufficient.”

Food and Water Watch, an environmental group working with Porter Ranch residents to oppose reopening of the gas field, called Brown’s call for the eventual closure of Aliso a “sellout” of families that have been sickened by chemicals coming from the gas well blowout.

The decision to resume gas operations at Aliso, was reckless because it “minimizes the serious health affects still felt by residents from the largest gas blowout in U.S. history,” said Alexandra Nagy, a organizer for the group. She pointed to objections to reopening from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the county Department of Public Health and the county Fire Department.

The blowout at Aliso Canyon galvanized the efforts of environmentalists to move away from fossil fuels like natural gas. The fact that the region has not experienced a gas shortage and related power outage since Aliso Canyon went off line is taken as proof by many that massive gas storage near homes is not needed.

“Southern California already has the technology to dramatically reduce its reliance on natural gas and shut down Aliso Canyon,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Sara Gersen, in an email statement. “Today, we saw our first hint that the California Energy Commission has the will to use those tools to shut down the facility that perpetrated the largest natural gas leak in U.S. history. "

The decision to reopen Aliso comes at a time when hundreds of lawsuits contest the safety of the gas field.

“This decision appears to harken back to a bygone era where energy giants call the shots,” said attorney Brian Kabateck, who represents individuals suing SoCal Gas over the blowout and injuries they allege to have sustain. “Porter Ranch residents who endured the gas blowout still struggle with a myriad of medical conditions. What has SoCal Gas done to ensure this won’t happen again?”