State regulators vote to increase storage at Aliso Canyon amidst public outcry – Orange County Register

State regulators voted unanimously on Thursday, Aug. 31 to permit Southern California Gas Co. to dramatically increase the amount of natural gas the company stores underground in Aliso Canyon, citing concerns about energy reliability in the winter.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), on a 5-0 vote, agreed to allow up to 68.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas be stored at the underground facility. The current limit is 41.1 billion cubic feet.

It was third time in three years that San Fernando Valley residents, prominent environmentalists and elected officials urged state regulators to reject SoCalGas’ proposals to expand the controversial underground storage field, the site of a devastating 2015 gas leak that drove 8,000 families from their homes.

The CPUC commissioners have voted each time in favor of increasing the facility’s size.

“This decision is not about using more natural gas or allowing the use of more natural gas,” said CPUC President Alice Reynolds before she voted to expand the storage on Thursday.

“It’s about storing natural gas inside California in preparation for the winter,” she said. “This decision is being considered while we together with other state agencies are working with urgency on the challenge of reducing reliance on natural gas throughout the state.”

CPUC Commissioner Karen Douglas acknowledged “deep concerns” from residents who live near Aliso Canyon, saying she hopes residents will remain engaged as the CPUC seeks to reduce or eliminate the facility.

Dozens of San Fernando Valley residents and residents from other areas called in to the hearing and cited health concerns.

Porter Ranch resident Patty Glueck told the commission that she and her neighbors near Aliso Canyon are weary of worrying about “the next earthquake, the next fire, the next time you go to a doctor to hear that you have cancer — and this is what we’re facing on a daily basis. We are sacrificing ourselves so that SoCalGas can enrich their pockets.”

During the 2015 leak from the underground gas storage facility at Aliso Canyon, many area residents were sickened by fumes and forced to flee.

More than 100,000 tons of methane was released into the atmosphere during the leak, an amount so vast that it was equivalent to one-quarter of Los Angeles’ annual methane pollution.

In 2021, SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, agreed to pay up to $1.8 billion in settlements to more than 35,000 victims of the massive leak.

Administrators with the CPUC, which oversees operations at the field, proposed in July to increase the allowed storage at Aliso Canyon to 68.6 billion cubic feet.

Opponents included environmentalists and residents, many of whom fled their homes during the 2015 leak as the gas company struggled to plug the leak. It took SoCalGas nearly four months to plug it, as families lived in hotels and evacuation centers.

Save Porter Ranch President and cofounder Matt Pakucko speaks at the intersection of Tampa Ave and Rinaldi St Tuesday, Aug 22, during a rally to urge California Governor Newsom to shut down the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage well. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Many critics fear that Aliso Canyon is still not safe enough to be surrounded by homes.

A letter from U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein to California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month cited data from the Southern California AQMD showing that in 2021 the SoCalGas facility released 298 pounds of benzene, about 2,555 pounds of formaldehyde, 255 pounds of trichloroethylene and 226 pounds of methanol.

Feinstein wrote that she supports closing Aliso Canyon on an expedited timeline. The CPUC proposal, she added, “appears to go in the opposition direction.”

Feinstein was among a dozen federal, state and local policymakers and representatives, including Congressman Adam Schiff and state Senator Henry Stern, who urged regulators in recent weeks not to allow SoCalGas to increase the storage limits at Aliso Canyon.

“Given the history of disaster and risks from continued operations at Aliso Canyon, I continue to support closing the facility on an expedited timeline,” Feinstein wrote in the letter.

Rachel Peterson, CPUC’s executive director, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News that the state regulators decided to consider expanding Aliso Canyon to mitigate an unprecedented spike in natural gas prices from November 2022 to March 2023.

Still, Peterson said, there’s no way to guarantee that adding storage capacity at Aliso Canyon will prevent gas price spikes in the winter months.

She said an investigation launched to study the cause of natural gas price spikes from last November through March is ongoing and hasn’t produced results yet.

“I’m in no way asserting that (expanding Aliso Canyon) can prevent the price spikes,” Peterson said, adding that “natural gas is a global commodity and it is subject to global market forces. And so there is nothing that we can do, to do something as strong as prevent (price spikes).”

Many remain skeptical that added storage at Aliso Canyon will reduce energy price spikes or power shortages.

State senators Henry Stern, Lena Gonzalez, Scott Wiener and several other lawmakers sent a letter to the CPUC noting that “prices spiked irrespective of inventories.” They pointed to mismanagement as the key cause of the price jumps.

“Past storage levels and gas prices indicate the unprecedented gas spike of last winter (2023/23) was a result of mismanagement and bad storage and purchasing choices rather than lack of storage,” according to the letter.

Los Angeles City Councilmember John Lee, who represents Porter Ranch, said in a statement that “opting to increase the storage levels at this facility is antithetical to the ultimate goal of shuttering the facility, is contrary to what the Southern California Gas Company and parent company, Sempra, have promised the residents of Northwest San Fernando Valley, and stands to undermine the Governor’s public commitment to the eventual closure of the facility.”

Over the years, SoCalGas has added new safety features, including:

  • Testing or abandonment of wells that remain temporarily plugged;
  • Real-time pressure monitoring of all wells;
  • Visual inspections of each well four times a day;
  • Daily infrared thermal imaging scanning of each well to detect leaks;
  • Operation of the fence line methane monitoring system.

SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride wrote in an email that “SoCalGas supports the ongoing California Public Utilities Commission’s review of the conditions that drove up natural gas commodity prices in the Western United States this past winter. The CPUC’s proposal to increase local natural gas storage levels ahead of winter is a prudent step to advance our shared goal of maintaining energy reliability at just and reasonable rates.”

Although SoCalGas added safety features, many critics fear it is not safe to operate near schools and homes.

At the Thursday hearing, environmental groups and residents reminded commissioners that no shortages or blackouts were reported while Aliso Canyon was offline for two years after the leak. State regulators vote to increase storage at Aliso Canyon amidst public outcry – Orange County Register

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