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Local energy reliability possibly at risk with Porter Ranch gas leak

Since Oct. 23, 2015, natural gas has been spewing from a ruptured well at SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon Storage Facility near Porter Ranch.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Since Oct. 23, 2015, natural gas has been spewing from a ruptured well at SoCal Gas' Aliso Canyon Storage Facility near Porter Ranch.

The heads of three California energy agencies say they are concerned Los Angeles could run short of the natural gas it needs to generate power over the coming hot summer months if  a massive underground gas field is shut down.

The heads of the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Independent System Operator raised the issue in a letter Monday to Gov. Jerry Brown. They want to study whether the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and other local power providers can meet peak demands come summer.

Southern California Gas Company operates the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility where a ruptured well has been belching large quantities of natural gas -- mostly methane -- into the atmosphere since Oct. 23. SoCalGas has said it expected to plug the leak by the end of this month.

The three state agency heads said they were forming a team with local power producers to study the reliability of the region's gas service and would hold a public workshop in April.

The California Public Utilities Commission is one of at least eight local, state and federal agencies investigating the gas leak at Aliso Canyon, which has prompted some 4,500 households to relocate from Porter Ranch and adjacent communities to avoid noxious fumes and potential health problems.

On Monday, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog announced it had filed a petition with the CPUC demanding it make public the tentative findings of its investigation. Group president Jamie Court accused officials at the CPUC of being too close to SoCalGas officials to responsibly conduct the investigation outside public view. He also said the CPUC should make its decisions on its inquiry in public sessions.

Court also questioned why the trio of agencies would wait until April for a public airing of concerns about the energy supply when the leak is supposed to be plugged by the end of February.

"It's a classic stonewall," Court said.

SoCalGas issued a statement saying that an independent third-party investigation is already in progress into the cause of the gas leak and that its report would be made public when it was finished. Engineers from a Texas firm selected by the CPUC and state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources visited the gas leak site last week, said SoCalGas spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd.
Under normal conditions, the Aliso Canyon field has a capacity to hold 86 billion cubic feet of gas available for customers -- about a 21 day supply at peak usage of about 4 billion cubic feet a day.  The gas is piped in from out of state and injected underground using gas injection wells. The same wells are used to pull the gas out.

But under orders from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and state agencies, SoCalGas has barred from injecting more gas into the field. It's also been steadily reducing the volume of gas held underground to lessen the pressure on the leaking well and to reduce the amount that leaks into the atmosphere.

Last week, the CPUC ordered SoCalGas to stop withdrawing gas when it neared 15 billion cubic feet so that the utility would have enough to supply customers during a cold snap or especially rainy weather. (SoCalGas keeps an additional 82 billion cubic feet of gas underground to pressurize the reservoir, making it possible to move the gas in and out through wells.)

In their letter, the three state agencies voiced concerns about energy supplies in the summer when power plants turn to gas to generate extra power for air conditioners.

"Our shared concern is electric system reliability for this summer, and both gas and electric system reliability for next winter and beyond in the event injections cannot resume," the officials wrote in a joint letter.

The Los Angeles Basin was of particular concern, they wrote:

"There is good reason to be concerned that reliability of supply may be critical for electric generators in the LA Basin, especially those serving LADWP. We expect to complete the work related to summer 2016 by April when we will hold a public, joint agency workshop in Los Angeles to describe the reliability risks and present a reliability action plan for mitigating them."

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power buys its natural gas from out of state companies, not from SoCalGas, said DWP spokeswoman Michelle Figueroa.  But that gas is shipped to LADWP over SoCalGas pipelines

"Natural gas is conveyed to Southern California through SoCalGas' system and into LADWP's in-basin generating stations," she wrote in an email. "LADWP does not have its own gas storage, and the management of SoCalGas' system to get the gas to us in entirely their responsibility."

She did not have an immediate response to the letter from the three state agencies, which was issued late in the day

The state Office of Emergency Services has also raised the prospect of short supplies. It says in an online factsheet at least 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas must be left in the underground storage reservoir at Aliso Canyon, "to avoid energy black-outs or brown-outs in greater Los Angeles."

The OES statement said the field must remain pressurized with at least that amount to meet peak winter demand and avoid disruptions of service during unusually cold or rainy weather. Gas service interruptions would require technicians to visit homes and businesses to relight all pilot lights in furnaces and water heaters, a process that could take days.

SoCalGas officials have repeatedly said that Aliso Canyon storage field is its largest and most important asset for the reliability of the system.

"Without the ability to operate the Aliso Canyon storage field, Californians could be at substantial risk of gas shortages during times of system stress," said company spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd.

The reliability concerns have drawn the attention of federal energy officials.
Research analyst Michael Kopalek of the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Monday that the region still has energy options without Aliso Canyon.
"It's important to look at all the pieces, look at all the spare capacity and try to figure out where the tightness is going to be before getting worried about supply issues," Kopalek said.
He says SoCalGas has three other storage fields which together have supplies about equal to a fully-functioning Aliso Canyon gas field. The region also gets gas from out-of-state suppliers.

Letter to Gov. Brown