Regulators allow natural gas injections at Aliso Canyon storage facility

- State regulators on Wednesday cleared the way for natural gas injections to resume at the Aliso Canyon storage facility that has been largely out of service since a four-month leak in 2015-16, but the facility will be operated in a limited fashion primarily to prevent Southland energy shortages.

The state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission determined that with new safety protocols in place, the facility is ``safe to operate and can reopen at a greatly reduced capacity.''

"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,'' said Ken Harris, DOGGR oil and gas supervisor.

"The extensive testing, retrofits and new safety measures ensure the wells are in sound operating condition today.''

CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan said the facility will be restricted to about 28 percent of its operating capacity, "just enough to avoid energy disruptions in the Los Angeles area.''

Concerns have been raised in the months since the leak about the possibility of electrical shortages due to the lack of natural gas from the Porter Ranch-area facility to operate power plants.

Critics have blasted such claims, saying the issue was being raised by Southern California Gas Co. as a scare tactic to pressure regulators into allowing Aliso Canyon to resume operating. SoCalGas officials vehemently denied the accusations.

"Aliso Canyon is an important part of Southern California's energy system, supporting the reliability of natural gas and electricity services for millions of people,'' according to the Gas Co.

"SoCalGas has met -- and in many cases, exceeded -- the rigorous requirements of the state's comprehensive safety review.''

The Aliso Canyon storage facility has been largely out of use since the four-month leak spewed about 109,000 metric tons of methane into the air and led to the temporary relocation of about 7,000 Porter Ranch-area residents. The leak began in October 2015 and was capped in February 2016.

Many residents, along with area elected officials, have been pushing to stall the reopening of the facility until an investigation is completed into the root cause of the leak. However, a bill that would have mandated such a delay failed in the state Legislature.

"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,'' County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.

According to CPUC and DOGGR, the investigation into the cause of the leak is continuing.

Meanwhile, the agencies noted that about 60 percent of the facility's 114 wells have been taken out of operation and isolated.

The remaining wells underwent extensive testing and retrofitting, with all equipped with real-time pressure monitors and new steel tubing and seals, officials said. New requirements also mandate routine aerial monitoring of the facility to detect any methane leaks.

The wells have also been outfitted with steel inner tubing, and the plant will have to operate at a pressure level of 2,926 pounds per square inch, down from 3,600 PSI.

SoCalGas officials said the company will also have around-the-clock pressure monitoring, four-times-daily patrols to examine every well and scanning of the wells using infrared thermal imaging cameras.

"Injection will not resume immediately,'' according to SoCalGas. "State agencies have outlined steps that must be completed before injections can resume, including a leak survey of the facility and a flyover to measure methane emissions at the site.

"We are committed to maintaining a transparent and open dialogue with the communities near Aliso Canyon and will provide regular updates on our progress at www.socalgas.com/alisoupdates.''

The Public Utilities Commission is also conducting a two-phase study of the possibility of greatly reducing or phasing out the use of Aliso Canyon altogether. The chairman of the California Energy Commission, Robert Weisenmiller, sent the commission a letter Wednesday saying the governor has asked him to plan for the closure of Aliso Canyon in 10 years, and he urged the CPUC to do the same.

"Closure of Aliso Canyon is no small task and the recommendation to close the facility is not one that I take lightly or without thoughtful consideration,'' Weisenmiller wrote.

"However, I am confident that through sustained investments in renewed energy, energy efficiency, electric storage technologies and other strategies, we can make this transition a reality.''

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander said he is "encouraged'' by the Energy Commission's position.

"The gas leak of 2015-16 was the largest in our nation's history and showed the danger of operating such facilities near residential areas,'' Englander  said.

"And while state regulatory agencies have taken steps to improve safety at the facility, the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself is through permanent closure of the facility.''

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Porter Ranch, accused SoCalGas of refusing ``to commit to subsurface safety valves.''

"One of the tragic ironies of the Aliso Canyon leak is that the broken well, SS25, had previously been equipped with a subsurface safety valve that was removed in 1979 and never replaced,'' said Sherman, whose home is near the site of the gas leak.

"The state should require deep subsurface positive-pressure safety valves on all active wells at subsurface natural gas storage facilities.''

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