Efforts to resume operations in Aliso Canyon halted

Hours after a Superior Court judge declined to block the re-start of natural gas injections at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, a state appeals court did so late on Friday, temporarily halting any effort to resume operations at the site of the largest methane leak in U.S. history.

Following an emergency filing by attorneys for Los Angeles County, the 2nd District Court of Appeal issued a temporary stay, stating that Southern California Gas Co. is "temporarily enjoined from injecting natural gas into
the Aliso Canyon underground reservoir" pending further consideration of the issue.

The court gave attorneys for the state and SoCalGas until 6 p.m. Saturday to file its responses, at which time the court "will issue a further order continuing or dissolving this temporary stay."

Earlier Friday afternoon, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. rejected the county's request for a temporary restraining order blocking the re-start of Aliso Canyon, saying he did not have the authority to "interfere" in the operation of a facility governed by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The county quickly ran to the Court of Appeal, prompting the late- afternoon stay.

State regulators announced last week that injections could resume in a limited fashion at Aliso Canyon, primarily to prevent electrical supply shortages in Southern California. But county officials objected, saying the facility should not reopen until a study is completed on the cause of the 2015- 16 gas leak. They also argued that further study is needed on the possible damage a large earthquake could cause to the storage field.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the investigation into the cause of the leak is continuing, but the facility is safe to resume limited operations.

"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 as scare tactics meant to pressure regulators into allowing Aliso Canyon to resume operating -- an accusation SoCalGas executives vehemently deny.

"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."

It was not immediately clear when gas injections were expected to resume. SoCalGas officials said they were more than halfway through the process of meeting requirements for re-starting injections.

"Once those steps are completed, we will begin injection operations to support the reliability of our natural gas and electricity systems," SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride said.

Once the operations resume, the facility "will be held to what state regulators have called the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation," he said.

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.

In court papers filed Monday, attorneys for the county argued that Aliso Canyon "cannot withstand" a major earthquake, and there is a 60 percent to 80 percent chance of such a temblor occurring in the Aliso Canyon area over the next 50 years.

SoCalGas officials said concerns about seismic safety were "carefully considered" by state regulators before they decided the facility is safe to resume limited operations.

Claims being made by attorneys for the county in hopes of preventing renewed operations at Aliso Canyon are "baseless and wrong," according to SoCalGas. "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."

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, however, said she will continue pushing to prevent the facility from re-starting.

"The county's first priority is to protect the health and safety of the residents of Porter Ranch and the northwest San Fernando Valley," Barger said. "I believe that allowing Aliso Canyon to begin re-injecting puts the residents in a potentially unsafe environment."