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SoCal Gas resumes injections at Aliso Canyon

The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
The SoCal Gas Company's Aliso Canyon Oil Field and Storage Facility is pictured in an aerial photograph taken Sept. 28, 2016.

Southern California Gas Company has resumed operations on a limited basis at its Aliso Canyon storage facility, site of the nation’s largest-ever natural gas leak. The move is sure to anger many in the nearby Porter Ranch community, who have been fighting to close the facility permanently since the leak.

Repeated efforts by Los Angeles County to block the reopening have failed. On Monday, a state appellate court judge denied a county request for a temporary restraining order filed in the morning. The county argued state regulators had not sufficiently studied the risk of a catastrophic earthquake at the storage field.

The gas company informed nearby residents in an email Monday afternoon that it had completed steps required by state regulators to resume injecting gas at the facility for storage.

Company spokesman Chris Gilbride confirmed in an email to KPCC that the utility on Monday began injecting gas into the storage field on a limited basis.

About a week and a half ago, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) gave the gas company the green light to reopen the facility, and the executive director of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) concurred. The county sued to prevent that from happening, arguing that SoCal Gas had not taken all necessary steps to ensure the safety of the facility in the event of a massive earthquake.

In the email announcing the reopening, the company said, “SoCalGas must begin injections to comply with the CPUC directive to maintain sufficient natural gas inventories at Aliso Canyon to support the reliability of the region’s natural gas and electricity systems.

“The CPUC has reported that ‘delaying the resumption of injections after DOGGR completed its safety determination may itself pose a continued public safety and reliability risk to the Los Angeles Basin.'"

But the facility can only operate at a greatly reduced capacity and should only be used if there is a threat to energy reliability in the region, the CPUC said in a statement issued July 21.

SoCalGas “can only withdraw from the facility for specific purposes,” the PUC said in the statement. “SoCalGas must maximize usage of the other fields, and there is a cap on what can be stored in Aliso. The end result is Aliso will only be used as a last resort for reliability purposes.” 

Activists who'd been fighting to keep the facility closed expressed disappointment with the news.

“This is a significant setback, because it increases the potential for releases and for leakage,” Issam Najm, board president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council, said. “However, by no means does it give them permission to go back to normal operations.”

State regulators have confirmed the facility is safe to operate, the company said.

The county disagreed. In repeated court challenges, it argued DOGGR hadn't completed a required safety review because it hasn't done seismic testing to address and mitigate the risk of a huge earthquake rupturing multiple wells. The county also said a risk management plan, including a facility-wide emergency response plan, had to be in place before the facility could be deemed safe for operation.

The Aliso Canyon facility lies directly on the Santa Susana fault and there are other faults nearby, according to the county’s legal filings. The county said seismic experts agree there is a high probability — between 60 and 80 percent — of an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude or greater within the next 50 years.

"The facility cannot withstand such an event," the county argued. "If a large earthquake occurs without sufficient risk mitigation protocols in place, the catastrophe that occurred in October 2015 at Aliso Canyon would be repeated on a much larger and more devastating scale."

The gas company has other steps it must now complete, including conducting a leak survey within 72 hours and a flyover to survey methane levels.

This story has been updated.