Environment & Science

Judge: SoCal Gas may do key study of its Aliso gas field despite potential conflict

File: Matt Pakucko, president and co-founder of Save Porter Ranch, speaks to the media during a press conference on a gas leak in Porter Ranch after a regular Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.
File: Matt Pakucko, president and co-founder of Save Porter Ranch, speaks to the media during a press conference on a gas leak in Porter Ranch after a regular Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The owner of the site of the nation’s largest ever uncontrolled natural gas leak has been ordered by a judge to conduct a key study that could determine if the facility should remain open or closed.

An attorney for thousands of residents of nearby Porter Ranch who are suing Southern California Gas Co. because of the leak said the company cannot be trusted to do the study of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility. They claim the company has previously made misleading statements and kept important information secret.

“There’s a kind of built-in conflict there,” in asking the owner of the gas field to study whether it should remain in operation, said Patricia Oliver with Parris Law Firm.

Officials for SoCal Gas declined to comment.

The Aliso Canyon gas blowout in the of fall 2015 caused more than 8,000 households in the Porter Ranch area to relocate during the four months that the leak was active.

The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.
The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

The blowout also led to a reconsideration of how heavily Southern California should depend on natural gas storage fields like Aliso. The state Legislature passed a law known as SB380 that ordered the state Public Utilities Commission to study whether the gas field should be scaled back or closed. Administrative Law Judge Melissa Semcer is overseeing that process.

The problem is that nobody else qualified to do the study stepped up and bid to do the work, Semcer said. In her order hiring Los Alamos National Laboratory to oversee the SoCal Gas study, she acknowledged the choice of SoCal Gas would generate tension among stakeholders, but she said she had no better alternative. She also said she was unlikely to change her decision.

One critical part of the inquiry is a hydraulic modeling study to show how securely the Aliso Canyon underground rock formation can hold the natural gas that functioned as a critical back-up supply of energy for Southern California.

“It doesn’t matter what SoCal Gas says about the modeling because everything else they say cannot be trusted, like, at all,” Matt Pakucko, president of Save Porter Ranch.

Pakucko’s mistrust of SoCal Gas extends to the very first days of the gas well blowout when company representatives denied the gas smell in Porter Ranch was anything more than venting occurring during normal maintenance, he said. The company paid millions of dollars to settle misdemeanor criminal charges that it failed to notify appropriate authorities about the ruptured well.

Residents, including Pakucko, have complained that the methane monitoring devices the company installed around the fence of the Aliso Canyon field either do not accurately portray the level of gas coming off the property or they shut down when levels rise. The monitors were ordered in the settlement.

Oliver, who represents Porter Ranch residents in litigation against SoCal Gas, said the company has failed to disclose data to the public or medical authorities about what chemicals were present in the gas that blew out of the ruptured well between October 2015 and February 2016.

Porter Ranch resident Issam Najm  said he prefers the study be done by an outside contractor and not by SoCal Gas. He is president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council but was representing himself in the proceeding.

Calling it a “glaring conflict of interest,” Najm asked the judge to reconsider her order that SoCal Gas do the hydraulic modeling, suggesting instead that the Los Alamos National Lab do the work. He said the company had not expressed any desire to limit operations at the gas field.

“It is completely unreasonable to have any expectation that SoCalGas will present any model scenarios that support the ability to minimize or eliminate the use of Aliso Canyon,” Najm wrote.

He voiced concern that the national lab experts would be able to view only the outcome of the modeling, not the actual modeling process itself.

“It should be obvious to anyone that SoCalGas will not bring forward any model run outcomes that show the system to be reliable without the use of Aliso Canyon,” Najm said.

This story was updated April 24 to add comments by Issam Najm.