Officials warn of possible natural gas shortage this winter

New calls to conserve gas could be coming this winter due to an explosion damaging some gas pipelines in October, 2017. Southern California Gas Company called on consumers to lower thermostats Dec. 18 to 20, 2016 to avert potential shortages of natural gas.
New calls to conserve gas could be coming this winter due to an explosion damaging some gas pipelines in October, 2017. Southern California Gas Company called on consumers to lower thermostats Dec. 18 to 20, 2016 to avert potential shortages of natural gas.
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A natural gas pipeline that exploded last month in the desert east of Barstow has put the Los Angeles region served by Southern California Gas Company at risk of shortages for a second consecutive year, state energy officials said Tuesday.

 A 30-inch natural gas line exploded Sunday, Oct., 1 in Newberry Springs near the I-40. A second gas line was also damaged. Together, the lines typically account for about one-fifth of the natural gas flowing into the region at any given time. But they've been off-line since the explosion. 

The pipeline that exploded will remain shut down until the cause of the failure is known, and the one it damaged could be repaired by the end of December, said Edward Randolph, an energy official with the state's Public Utility Commission.

On Tuesday, the commission described the reduction in gas supplies as "unprecedented."

The shutdown of the two pipelines means that SoCal Gas loses the ability to ship about 800 million cubic feet of gas into the region per day. A third pipeline has been shut off since August 2016 (and will be back online in May 2018) while a fourth pipeline has been operating at lower pressure since 2011. All these outages exacerbated the potential for shortages.

Last year’s shortage warning stemmed from a moratorium on SoCal Gas refilling a major underground gas storage field in the north end of the San Fernando Valley while it was being repaired  following a gas well break. State energy officials ordered a range of gas conservation measures, and no customers were cut off during the coldest periods last winter. The Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility went back on line in July and is now operating at a reduced capacity.

The region typically uses 300 to 500 million cubic feet of gas per day, however, that amount can rise steeply during very cold or hot periods when people ramp up their heaters or air conditioners.

The company could increase shipments of gas into the L.A. basin on other pipelines to make up for part of the shortfall, the PUC said in a report on the potential shortage.

California Public Utilities Commission Chairman Michael Picker urged people to conserve both gas and electricity this winter and opt into "demand response" programs that can lower wi-fi connected  thermostats when authorities warn of a potential shortage.

Picker proposed that power utilities that burn gas from SoCal Gas to shift their power generation outside the region or to use other sources of fuel to stretch SoCal’s supply of natural gas within the L.A. basin.

Picker also called on Los Angeles County to issue an emergency halt to permitting new gas connections for businesses, industry and new residential developments over the winter.

"Having a moratorium on new connections would reduce the increased demand for natural gas by [...] customers who are just hooking up," Picker said. "We've got to avoid continuing to dig ourselves deeper into this potential hole."

Picker said it would be better if the county devised a plan for a moratorium, "But if they can't or they're unwilling to do so, we're looking at what our emergency authority is to order the utility to do that."

Officials at Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, which issues permits for new gas connections, had not communicated with Picker or the PUC about a potential moratorium, said spokesman Steven Frasher.

The energy reliability outlook report issued by the energy officials is the fourth since a gas well ruptured at the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Facility in late October 2015. It was prepared by experts from the PUC, the California Energy Commission, the California Independent System Operator and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. SoCal Gas was consulted, but the report was prepared independent of the company.

Gas availability in winter 2015-16 was not an issue because SoCal Gas was pulling gas out of the Aliso field to lower its pressure. But reports issued for Summer 2016 and winter 16-17 forecast potential shortages. The summer 2017 forecast, issued after conservation measures were ordered, was less dire. The winter 2017-18 report renews the concerns of potential shortages because of the pipeline outages.

Over the past few months, SoCal Gas and the PUC have been tangling over when and how Aliso Canyon gas field might be filled with a higher volume of gas.

In mid-October, the PUC wrote SoCal Gas demanding the company offer up a plan to deal with the shortages that could result from the unplanned pipeline outages. The PUC has ordered the Aliso Canyon field to remain at a low volume and that gas be withdrawn only as a last resort to prevent cutting off service to customers.

Meanwhile, the PUC ordered SoCal Gas to maintain a systemwide capacity to deliver 2.4 billion cubic feet of gas per day, between pipeline deliveries and withdrawals from three smaller gas fields in Playa del Rey, Santa Clarita and Santa Barbara County.

SoCal Gas counters that keeping the field at a low level means that its three smaller gas fields must take up the slack, even though they have not had the same extensive equipment overhauls and upgrades that were done at the Aliso gas field. The company told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the limits increased the risk for shortages. The Public Utilities Commission replied that SoCal Gas had overstated the risk.

"Last month we expressed our concerns about state policy decisions that limit the use of local natural gas storage and enhance the risk of service interruptions for customers this winter," SoCal Gas spokeswoman Christine Detz said in an email statement. She declined an interview because the company was still reviewing the energy reliability report.

The gas system in the L.A. basin is designed to rely on the surplus of gas stored underground at Aliso Canyon, she said.

The field, a depleted oil field converted to gas storage, was purchased by SoCal Gas in 1972.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the length of time a SoCal Gas pipeline has been out of service. One has been out of service since 2016, while another has been at lower capacity since 2011.