Copyright Capital & Main
Environmentalists and economic justice advocates question the motives behind a massive natural gas infrastructure project when the state is committed to tough pollution controls.
San Diego Gas & Electric customers in San Diego County are served by two natural gas pipelines, but the company wants to build a third — a $600 million, 36-inch line.
Environmentalists and other critics are denouncing the proposed line, saying not only is a new, three-foot wide pipe not needed in the region, but that it runs counter to the state’s mission of embracing green energy.
The new pipeline, called “3602,” would run nearly 50 miles, roughly along the east side of Interstate 15 from Rainbow, near the Riverside County line, south to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Right now San Diego customers are being served by a 30-inch pipe, dubbed “3010,” which went into service in 1960 and provides about 90 percent of the gas for the region, and a 16-inch line, designated “1600,” which dates to 1949.
“Does it make sense to build a pipeline when we are decarbonizing?”
SDG&E cites safety and reliability concerns in its desire to de-rate 1600 and take it from a transmission to a distribution line – though not decommissioning it – and letting 3602 take up the slack. The company isn’t proposing decommissioning or de-rating 3010, even though it’s nearly as old as 1600.
Environmentalists and economic justice advocates question the company’s stated motives in proposing a massive natural gas infrastructure project when the state is committed to tough pollution controls. They believe that lower demand for natural gas in six years, when 3602 would go into service, would make the project a stranded asset.
Matt Vespa, an attorney for Earthjustice, said San Diego Gas & Electric’s parent company Sempra Energy “admits that demand for natural gas is going down.”
“Does it actually make sense to build a pipeline when we are decarbonizing?” Vespa asked.
Sempra spokeswoman Ramp said line 1600 “was constructed in 1949 using non-state-of-the-art materials and construction and is older than 89 percent of the natural gas pipelines in service in the United States.”
She added that in-line inspections on that line have been performed several times and have shown more than 2,700 anomalies. “Pressure testing is costly . . . requires taking the line out of service and may interrupt service to customers, including electric generators fueled by natural gas,” she said.
Engineer Powers, who opposes construction, said the company is using circular logic.
“They’ve morphed a simple requirement, to test, into some massive new infrastructure project that the region doesn’t need,” Powers said. “Their argument is, ‘It’s old, so obviously it’s unsafe, so let’s not bother testing.’”
Powers objected to the company’s use of words like anomalies and defects with regard to 1600.
“They’re pejorative words, and the company doesn’t explain what kind of anomalies they’re talking about,” Powers said, adding that he thinks those words are “used to sway the commissioners, who have no scientific background.”
On its Pipeline Safety Awareness page, the U.S. Department of Transportation challenges the assumption that old pipes are dangerous, saying, “If pipelines are constructed and maintained correctly, the life of the pipeline is virtually endless.”
Sempra justifies building 3602, saying pipeline redundancy is necessary to prevent any service interruptions. And the company has a new, unlikely ally, the Utility Consumers’ Action Network (UCAN), a San Diego-based utility watchdog, which recently reversed its initial opposition to the proposal.
The action network’s executive director, Donald Kelly, said he never thought he would conclude that a new pipeline in the region was needed, but his organization’s safety expert, Margaret Felts, convinced him. Felts is a technical consultant who previously testified to the CPUC that PG&E’s shoddy record keeping contributed to the catastrophic San Bruno explosion in 2010.
Kelly said Felts “was concerned about rupture risks to line 1600, and even when the pressure is reduced, it’s still a high-pressure pipeline.” He added that a second pipeline is necessary for energy reliability in San Diego.
In written testimony submitted to the CPUC, Felts wrote: “By the time Line 3602 is completed in 2022, Line 1600 will be 73 years old and Line 3010 will be 62 years old, well beyond the design lives of both lines. As 2022 approaches, ensuring the integrity of Line 3010 will require increased vigilance, inspections, maintenance and repairs.” She said the proposed 36-inch pipe “will provide complete redundancy in times when Line 3010 will be shut down.”
Powers questioned Felts’ engineering qualifications in his CPUC testimony and challenged her claim that line 3010 alone could not meet peak power demand through 2024. Other environmental and consumer groups like the Southern California Generation Coalition (SCGC) also maintain that constructing a new backup pipeline makes little sense.
“They’re saying we need pipeline redundancy in case of failure, but I say the project meets Webster’s Dictionary’s other definition of redundancy, unnecessary,” Norman Pedersen, the coalition’s attorney said. “If they are concerned about safety of 1600 and possible downtime of 3010, there are plenty of alternatives that are actually safer than building a third pipeline.”
SCGC and the Sierra Club have said shortages Sempra warned about are based on projections for “one-in-10-year cold days,” and don’t account for advancements in solar deployment and energy storage capabilities to take up the slack in a gas emergency. These opponents say it is easy enough to simply buy gas temporarily. Catherine Yap, SCGC’s natural gas industry expert, told the CPUC that transporting gas from other pipelines, such as an existing pipeline flowing north from Otay Mesa on the Mexican border, could resolve outages.
“The Applicants acknowledge that they have relied upon deliveries of gas at Otay Mesa in the past when shortfalls have arisen between customer demands and deliveries across Lines 3010 and 1600,” Yap wrote in testimony the coalition provided to Capital & Main.
Sempra’s Ramp pointed to “unknowns” in obtaining gas from Mexico, while acknowledging that getting gas from that country has proven to be helpful in emergency situations.
Following hearings scheduled to continue through September, the CPUC could scuttle the construction of 3602 if commissioners determine the line simply isn’t needed. It has happened before, though it’s rare. Last year commissioners rejected the $621.3 million “North-South” pipeline proposed by SDG&E and SoCalGas that would have stretched 65 miles between Adelanto and Moreno Valley. The companies said that line was needed for energy reliability, but unlike the proposed 3602, it wouldn’t have replaced any existing line.