Aliso Canyon gas field to remain stalled another year, PUC exec says

Sen. Fran Pavley and Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander at a state-sponsored workshop in Woodland Hills to address energy reliability without the gas storage at Aliso Canyon
Sen. Fran Pavley and Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander at a state-sponsored workshop in Woodland Hills to address energy reliability without the gas storage at Aliso Canyon
State of California energy reliability workshop

Southern California Gas Company's vast natural gas storage field at Aliso Canyon will likely remain inactive for at least another year, Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker told an audience of energy officials and Porter Ranch residents Friday.

"I assume we won't have Aliso Canyon back on-line this year," Picker said.

His assertion is at odds with SoCal Gas's announcement on Thursday that it expected to be able to fully test enough of its 114 gas wells to make the field operable by late summer.

Picker spoke at a public workshop on energy reliability for the Los Angeles area addressing the question of how L.A. and surrounding counties will get through the summer without power outages that could result if electrical utilities run short of the natural gas they burn.

The Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility is the underground  reservoir where SoCal Gas stores most of the gas L.A. and Orange County homes use for home heating and cooking. Power plants also use the gas to generate electricity on days of  peak demand like during summer heat waves.

With the gas storage field kept at about one-fifth of its full capacity, power plants could run short of natural gas to burn for power. State law permits power plants' gas service to be cut off when supplies run short, preserving gas for homes and small businesses.

State energy officials have predicted that the L.A. Basin and surrounding counties could face up to 14 days this summer and 32 days in the coming year when utilities might order limited power outages to avoid larger blackouts.

Picker said he was unwilling to permit SoCal Gas to inject gas into the underground reservoir or withdraw gas from it until wells have been tested according to the rules set out by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

Bret Lane, chief operating officer for SoCal Gas, described the company's proposal to fully test some and temporarily seal off other wells. He said the move could return the field to use but that it would reduce the amount of gas that could move in and out of the underground reservoir.

"I will not give this field to DOGGR to look at and certify until I know that every one of those steps are done there," Lane said. "This is not a mad rush for us."

The energy reliability workshop brought members of the state Energy and Public Utilities commissions and officials of the region's largest utilities and power grid managers into the same room with several elected officials and residents who were affected by the gas leak.

SoCal Gas has said it expects to be able to begin injecting gas underground by late summer through a limited number of wells that have undergone a battery of six integrity tests. The rest of the 114 wells on the 4,600-acre Aliso Canyon field would need to have passed two basic tests for leaking and then be sealed off.

Reopening the gas storage field is unpopular among many of the residents who were affected by the four-month gas leak.

Some 4,700 households, or an estimated 14,000 residents, are still living in short-term hotel and rental homes because they don't think the community is safe enough yet to return, said Paula Cracium, president of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council. She also chairs the Porter Ranch Community Advisory Commission, which brings local resident groups together with representatives from the gas company and local government.

"No gas is going into Aliso Canyon until the site is safe and has integrity," said Robert Oglesby, executive director of the California Energy Commission.

Limited gas supplies could take out the equivalent of five large generating plants at one time, said Mark Rothleder of Cal-ISO.

Catherine Elder, a gas industry consultant, told the workshop panel it would be difficult to add enough new storage to the SoCal Gas system quickly enough to make a difference over the next few months. For example, the Honor Rancho gas storage field north of Santa Clarita would have to be studied to determine if it could be expanded to hold more gas at a higher pressure. New wells would also have to be drilled.

Gas transportation alternatives do exist, but none would be quick enough to serve the L.A.-Orange County area. For example, an old ARCO pipeline runs to Long Beach from the Four Corners area. If somebody wanted to buy that and convert it to gas storage, including fixing any problems on the pipeline, they could, but it would require extensive permits and work, Elder said.

There are other underground storage basins in the nation, but they aren't close enough to serve the L.A. basin, Elder said.

The biggest challenges for utilities in the L.A. area: lowering demand for electricity and coordinating more carefully.

"We must not rush to refill the reservoir and risk a second major leak," said state Sen. Fran Pavley, who represents Porter Ranch.

She called on the commissioners and utility executives to accelerate programs that reduce the use of gas and electricity, as well as increasing the use and storage of solar power at homes and businesses.

Councilman Mitchell Englander told the panel he wanted to see the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources given more authority over SoCal Gas, which he described as negligent when it comes to maintenance of the Aliso Canyon storage field.

He and Rep. Brad Sherman said the region shouldn't have to choose between restoring use of Aliso Canyon before all its wells are fully inspected and rolling blackouts for the larger region. Sherman demanded the commissioners require SoCal Gas to install subsurface safety valves on all wells.

Ed Randolph of the Public Utilities Commission said residents and small businesses could do more to help stretch the gas supply this summer by conserving as much electricity as they can. Some measures already taken include the PUC ordering SoCal Edison and SoCal Gas to accelerate their spending of more than $48 million that have been set aside to improve energy efficiency for poor households.

Randolph said another energy savings option might be to increase the rebates available for homes to replace inefficient pool heaters. The rebates currently cover half the installed cost, but they could be increased to cover up to 100 percent of the cost.