Legal battle continues over restart of Aliso Canyon gas storage facility

- Attorneys for Los Angeles County filed updated papers with a state appeals court Monday in a renewed effort to block the restart of operations at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, site of the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

The filing continues four days of legal wrangling over the future of the storage field, which has been largely out of operation since the massive leak of late 2015 and early 2016 that forced thousands of residents from their homes and prompted calls by some residents to shutter the facility altogether.

On July 19, regulators from the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources ruled that Southern California Gas Co. could resume limited injections of natural gas into Aliso Canyon. State officials said the facility would be permitted to operate at roughly 28 percent of its capacity, enough to prevent any power shortages in the Southland.

The county filed court papers last week seeking a restraining order to block the effort, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. rejected the request, saying he did not have the authority to "interfere'' in the operation of a facility governed by the CPUC.

Later that day, the county went to the state 2nd District Court of Appeal, which issued a stay late Friday blocking any resumption of gas injections at Aliso Canyon.

The appellate court, however, lifted the stay late Saturday in response to papers filed by SoCalGas. On Monday morning, attorneys for the county filed a roughly 60-page motion with the appeals court seeking to have the stay reinstated, arguing that regulators failed to meet all of the requirements needed to authorize a re-start of Aliso Canyon.

DOGGR "has not addressed the substantial seismic risk of again injecting gas into the Aliso Canyon facility, nor has it conducted a public hearing after completion of its safety assessment,'' according to the latest filing. "And, it has not made any effort to comply with'' state environmental requirements.

SoCalGas officials insist that Aliso Canyon is safe to re-open, contending that the utility has gone above and beyond state safety requirements.

"In fact, DOGGR says Aliso Canyon 'has undergone more safety and regulatory scrutiny during this period than any of California's 13 other underground natural gas storage facilities, and likely more safety scrutiny from a regulatory agency than any other gas storage facility in the United States,''' SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride said.

SoCalGas officials have also rejected arguments over seismic safety, saying the issue was "carefully considered'' by state regulators before they decided the facility is safe to resume limited operations.

"(Saturday's) decision by the court of appeals is the right one,'' Gilbride said. "Aliso Canyon is safe to operate. This is not just our conclusion, but the conclusion of the only state regulators with lawful jurisdiction and expertise to oversee the safety of our operations.''

Los Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger said she and a litany of other county officials believe the facility should not reopen until a study is completed on the cause of the 2015-16 gas leak. They also contend further study is needed on the possible damage a large earthquake could cause to the storage field.

"I strongly believe that without a root-cause analysis, seismic risk assessments and a long-term energy reliability study, this facility -- which jeopardized the health and safety of local families for months -- should not be allowed to reopen,'' Barger said.

The Aliso Canyon leak was discovered on Oct. 24, 2015 and continued emanating methane until a Feb. 11, 2016 announcement that the leak was capped. The leak poured an estimated 109,000 tons of methane into the air.

At its peak, the escaping gas forced an estimated 15,000 Porter Ranch area residents to temporarily relocate.

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