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Residents and Lawmakers Renew Push to Close Aliso Canyon Gas Facility

Residents and activists acknowledge that action on closing Aliso Canyon may not come until a new governor takes office next year.

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Alexandra Nagy (left) and Porter Ranch residents outside LA. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger's office. (Photo: Save Porter Ranch)

Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) invented shortages to justify using the troubled Aliso Canyon storage facility, the site of the October 2015 blowout that forced nearby residents from their homes for months, residents and lawmakers have charged. The blowout, caused by a ruptured well, sent more than 100,000 metric tons of natural gas into the atmosphere and resulted in a four-month-long leak.

Governor Jerry Brown allowed the utility to inject gas into the facility last summer despite objections from nearby residents, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles Unified School District and local lawmakers. Brown, who has the authority to shut down gas storage facilities, recommended Aliso Canyon be closed in 10 years. Residents, however, say Brown is kicking the can down the road, and they have stepped up pressure on local officials to urge the governor to close it.

Stern letter about a “contrived emergency”

State Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) slammed regulators for allowing SoCalGas to make withdrawals from the partially idled Aliso Canyon storage field, which he said “exacerbates the ongoing risk to ratepayers and residents without any evidentiary basis or public hearing.”

The Aliso Withdrawal Protocol, approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), stipulated that the storage field could not be used unless SoCalGas can demonstrate that it is withdrawing gas as a last resort and that there was an “imminent risk” that the region’s electricity would be curtailed without additional gas supply.

In a March 5 letter to the CPUC, Stern said SoCalGas didn’t meet those criteria this winter, and that expanded use of Aliso was authorized without public comment. He also accused the company of mismanaging its gas pipeline system to justify keeping Aliso operating, citing three major gas importing pipelines that the company took offline for unplanned maintenance before peak winter demand.

“A contrived emergency, justified by an opaque, self-interested rationale by SoCalGas, is no emergency at all,” Stern wrote.

Stern also raised concerns about ongoing risks at the facility, noting that seismic and fire safety reviews still have not been completed and that the root cause analysis of the 2015 blowout has not been finished.

In a letter responding to Stern, the CPUC said SoCalGas’ injection of gas was “consistent with the withdrawal protocol’s requirement that Aliso Canyon be used as an asset of last resort.”

Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for Sempra Energy, the parent company of SoCalGas, told Capital & Main in an email that Aliso Canyon is needed to meet winter demand.

“The more we rely on our three other storage fields to support peaks in demand, the more likely withdrawals from Aliso Canyon become necessary to prevent service interruptions to customers,” Gilbride wrote.

Alexandra Nagy, Southern California organizer with Food and Water Watch, said responses from CPUC and Sempra didn’t address all of Stern’s concerns.

“They didn’t justify why these pipelines are still offline or explain what the hourly peak demands were and how other mitigation measures were deployed to prevent withdrawals or any other mention of conservation measures used to lower demand,” Nagy said.

Report says Aliso Canyon still poses risks

The nonpartisan California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) released a three-part study in January examining whether underground natural-gas facilities pose a risk to safety, health and the environment, whether natural gas storage is needed through 2020 and whether such facilities were in line with the state’s climate policies. Researchers said tighter regulations implemented in 2018 would make all facilities safer, but in an assessment of all California natural gas storage facilities, researchers found that Aliso Canyon has many serious risks, including danger to the health of facility workers.

CCST researchers also noted that it is unclear what chemicals residents have been exposed to because SoCalGas has not released a list of the compounds released in the blowout. But posts on the Save Porter Ranch Facebook page, started by residents in the community closest to the facility, routinely note headaches, nausea, dizziness, nosebleeds and other health problems residents suffered long after the leaking well was capped in February 2016.

Several residents said they noticed an increase in symptoms during the recent gas withdrawals this winter. Local physician Dr. Jeffrey Nordella released the findings last October of his independent toxins study on more than 100 patients living near Aliso Canyon and found that many had above average levels of the carcinogens styrene and ethylbenzene in their hair.

Not giving up on Brown

Most recently residents have taken aim at Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, urging them to demand that Brown close Aliso Canyon permanently and immediately. Barger, despite her previous efforts to block limited injections at some of the wells at Aliso Canyon, appears to be backing off from her goal of closing the facility right away.

Jarrod Degonia, Barger’s senior field deputy for the San Fernando Valley, told Capital & Main that Barger was awaiting the results of three studies before demanding the shutdown: a CPUC-led energy reliability study; a report on the health effects of the blowout and leak; and an analysis of the root cause of the blowout, by Blade Energy Partners, an independent consulting firm hired by the CPUC. Begonia said that Barger is still opposed to withdrawals and injections of gas at Aliso, even though she was denied a restraining order last year to stop them, and that she is “actively trying to obtain more money for a long-term health study.”

Residents and activists acknowledge that action on closing Aliso Canyon may not come until a new governor takes office in January. Two Democratic candidates for governor, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin have said the facility should be shut down now. Newsom stressed his intention to shut down Aliso in a video.

Food and Water Watch’s Nagy said proponents of shutting down Aliso “want to maintain urgency and not let Jerry Brown off the hook.”


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