Environment & Science

LA County asks CA Supreme Court to rule on gas field reopening

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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Los Angeles County is taking its fight to stop operations at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field to the state Supreme Court, attorneys confirmed Tuesday.

In a petition filed on Friday, the county asked the high court to stop new injections of natural gas into the Aliso Canyon storage field until extensive new environmental and seismic safety studies can be done.

Two years ago, the massive gas field near Porter Ranch was the site of the nation's largest ever natural gas leak,  forcing more than 8,000 nearby households to relocate for months.

Southern California Gas Co. recently obtained permission from state gas and utilities regulators to begin refilling the underground reservoir, a critical step toward resuming limited operations at a gas field the company says is vital to the energy reliability in the Los Angeles region.

But some Porter Ranch area residents, environmentalists and  Los Angeles County have sought to keep the field offline out of concerns it could spring another leak.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the sate Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) gave SoCal Gas the go-ahead to resume operations at the storage field -- albeit on a limited basis. The county unsuccessfully sought to stop that decision in superior and appellate court.

Last week, the county decided to take its case to the state's high court. 

“We want some court in California to decide the merits,” said Scott Kuhn, principal deputy county counsel for L.A. County.

Recent rulings against the county at the superior court and appellate level have been on jurisdictional issues, not the safety or seismic concerns.

A superior court judge ruled he did not have jurisdiction over the PUC or DOGGR when they agreed with a finding that the gas field had been made safe to reopen. An appellate court judge upheld the ruling.

“We just hope that the Supreme Court will look at the papers and get to the merits of this,” Kuhn said. “And I think if they do they'll see that there really needs to be more safety review and public review of this facility before it can resume normal operation.”

DOGGR spokesman Donald Drysdale said the agency does not comment on litigation. In its decision to reopen the gas field for limited operations, officials with DOGGR asserted that a seismic study is needed, but that it shouldn't delay the reopening of the field.

L.A. County’s petition asks the Supreme Court to find that the lower courts do have jurisdiction to review the county’s safety concerns.

"The trial court and the appellate court concluded that only the Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction, and we respectfully disagree," said Skip Miller, an outside counsel representing the county. "We think the courts of our state do have jurisdiction to adjudicate issues regarding earthquake safety emergency response in case of an earthquake."

Gas in the field had been drawn down to a low level for more than a year while Southern California Gas Company overhauled or closed dozens of aging gas wells as required under SB380, a state law that imposed conditions on the Aliso gas field reopening.

The county sued DOGGR stating that it had not fulfilled the safety requirements of SB380. It also argued that SoCal Gas should complete a more extensive safety review of the gas field before reopening.

The county also wants the gas company to hold off reopening until an independent study pinpoints the cause of the well rupture.

The county is concerned that adding new gas to the field increases the pressure on the overhauled, but aging gas wells at Aliso Canyon.

“We don't know how the piping and the tubing in the well structure are going to respond to that increased pressure given that it's been at a reduced pressure for a year and a half following that catastrophic leak” Kuhn said.

The county also wants SoCal Gas to prepare a more complete emergency response plan, and it should conduct extensive new environmental studies of the gas field, including one assessing the seismic risk, Kuhn said.

The massive gas field in the Santa Susana Mountains lies atop the Santa Susana earthquake fault. The county quotes two geologists and a former SoCal Gas manager of gas storage operations as saying a large earthquake on the fault could damage multiple gas wells at the same time, releasing more methane into the atmosphere.

In a statement, SoCal Gas spokesman Chris Gilbride said the company was adding gas to the field to “maintain natural gas inventories at Aliso Canyon necessary to support the reliability of the region’s natural gas and electricity systems.”

“State regulators confirmed the field is safe to operate,” Gilbride said. “They also carefully considered all of the issues raised by the County in their comprehensive safety review and detailed written responses are available to the public. ”