Despite a nearly two-year effort by activists to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas wells, state regulators on Wednesday deemed the facility safe to operate for now and said partial gas injection can resume to avoid energy shortages in Los Angeles.
The action followed 17 months of what state regulators called “rigorous inspection and analysis of wells” at Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility just above Porter Ranch, as well as new protocols in place. But it also came on the same day when the state’s energy commissioner sent out an unexpected letter invoking Gov. Jerry Brown’s name and urging regulators to shut the wells down. Brown has never publicly called for shutting down the wells.
The state Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission were required to concur that the facility is safe before gas injection could resume under Senate Bill 380.
“After careful review of testing results, our safety teams have confirmed the integrity of the wells at this facility,” the utilities commission’s executive director, Timothy Sullivan, said in a statement. “Out of an abundance of caution and consideration for public safety, storage capacity will be restricted to approximately 28 percent of the facility’s maximum capacity, just enough to avoid energy disruptions in the Los Angeles area.”
• RELATED STORY: Cedric the Entertainer is suing SoCalGas over ‘ultra-hazardous’ well leak and his neighbors are glad
The decision comes almost two years after a massive natural gas leak above Porter Ranch sickened thousands of people, forcing them to temporarily leave their homes in the northwestern San Fernando Valley. The reported 100,000 metric tons of methane that spewed from one of 115 aged wells over more than three months in Aliso Canyon was considered unprecedented. The leak was capped in February 2016 and 60 percent of the wells were taken offline, but the root cause of the leak continues to be under investigation, state regulators said.
Meanwhile, 42 wells have been tested and remediated by the oil and gas division and are available for service, state regulators said.
“Taking into account new conditions, in this update, the CPUC has determined that 23.6 billions of cubic feet of inventory at the Aliso Canyon Storage Field is necessary for SoCalGas to maintain safe and reliable service,” according to a report prepared by the oil and gas division. “Managing the facility in this manner is estimated to address safety and reliability needs while providing sufficient flexibility to respond to gas market conditions to support just and reasonable rates.”
• RELATED STORY: <URL destination="http://www.dailynews.com/health/20160512/metals-found-in-dust-of-porter-ranch-homes-linked-to-post-leak-symptoms">Metals found in dust of Porter Ranch homes linked to post-leak symptoms
</URL>Wednesday’s announcement means that SoCalGas can inject gas into those wells but not immediately.
It also means that the company must adhere to several requirements, according to the oil and gas division, including:
•Lowering sensors into the well to measure temperature and verify the integrity of the well.
• Taking extensive measurements of the well casing walls.
• Performing a pressure test to confirm the well remains sound when the pressure is 115 percent of its maximum operating pressure.
“In order to protect public safety and the environment, this facility will be held to the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation and will store only the minimum gas necessary to supply the Los Angeles area,” Ken Harris, state oil and gas supervisor and head of the oil and gas division, said in a statement. “The extensive testing, retrofits, and new safety measures ensure the wells are in sound operating condition today.”
• RELATED STORY: Aliso Canyon 1 year later: Health study stuck in limbo amid cancer fears
A state regulatory filing from 2014 showed that SoCalGas knew its pipes were corroding and failing at a worsening pace more than a year before the massive Porter Ranch methane leak, a document shows. The utility said it needed funds to inspect and repair old wells on a more systematic basis and warned of heightened risks under its current inspection regime.
Harris and Sullivan said they now have staff in place to provide ongoing inspections.
“We have a new gas program now that is nearly fully staffed,” Harris said in a teleconference Wednesday. “We have staff that are on the mountain every day. Even the testing continues. That’s probably going to go on a few months.”
In response, SoCalGas officials said in a statement that the company has “exceeded the rigorous requirements of the state’s comprehensive safety review” and said the field will be operated at a reduced pressure, at the state’s direction.
“Under new regulations, gas will only flow through newly installed and pressure-tested, inner steel tubing,” according to the statement.
• TIMELINE: Aliso Canyon gas leak’s impact on Porter Ranch
Activists have long called for shutting down Aliso Canyon permanently, saying it is dangerous because of continued leaks and unnecessary because of alternative energy resources.
A closure is still possible, Sullivan said, but the decision may not be made for more than a year. Yet pressure came from California Energy Commission Chairman Robert B. Weisenmiller, who released a letter Wednesday urging the utilities commission to start planning for a closure in the next 10 years. Weisenmiller cited Brown’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent. Shutting down Aliso Canyon falls well within those plans, the chairman said.
“With the State’s climate target in mind, Governor Brown has asked me to plan for the permanent closure of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, and I urge the California Public Utilities Commission to do the same,” Weisenmiller said in his letter.
In response, Sullivan said that Weisenmiller’s letter carried weight for regulators.
“It’s important when the head of the CEC says something like that,” Sullivan noted during a teleconference.
Meanwhile, response from activists, the community and local leaders ranged from shock to disappointment.
“The facility should remain closed until the root cause analysis and energy reliability study are completed and the health concerns of our impacted residents are fully addressed to the satisfaction of county health officials,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the Porter Ranch area.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander said he was disappointed but “encouraged that the California Energy Commission will proceed with a plan to permanently close the facility within 10 years.”
Activist Alexandra Nagy was more blunt and dared Brown’s administration to push state regulators harder to close the facility. Nagy, of Food & Water Watch, an organization that has been working with the Porter Ranch community since the leak began, said the state’s decision ignored requirements made by several county agencies, including finding the root-cause, seismic studies and the long-term health effects among residents.
“Governor Brown’s administration has sold out families in the North San Fernando Valley by allowing Aliso Canyon to reopen, even at a limited capacity,” Nagy said. “All operations at the Aliso Canyon storage facility are dangerous and thousands of residents are still sick from the 2015 blowout and ongoing leaks at the facility.”