Environment & Science

Bill to keep Porter Ranch gas field offline advances to Assembly floor

Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, attends a Senate Governance and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, June 11, 2015 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.
Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, attends a Senate Governance and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, June 11, 2015 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.
Carl Costas/ CALmatters

A bill that would force Southern California Gas Company to complete integrity tests on its wells before resuming injections to its underground gas storage field near Porter Ranch will get its next test before the full Assembly.

The bill SB 380 is from Sen. Fran Pavley, (D-Agoura Hills) who represents the Porter Ranch area that was plagued by a massive methane leak from a ruptured well at the nearby Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility.

Whether Aliso Canyon and its aging gas wells may be returned to full operations is a high-stakes issue for residents whose lives were disrupted by the leak and for the gas company and local power producers who say the region risks blackouts this summer if their plants run short of the natural gas they use to generate power.

The leak disrupted life in Porter Ranch and surrounding neighborhoods as they were inundated with the rotten-egg smell of a chemical called mercaptans that is added as a safety measure to make odorless methane detectable.

Many residents reported symptoms like headaches, nausea, nosebleeds and rashes. About 8,000 households moved away from Porter Ranch and surrounding neighborhoods at some point over the four-month leak, and more than 4,000 households remain in alternate housing.  Although the leak was plugged in mid-February, concerns remain about the gas field and what exactly it emitted during the leak. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is testing air quality and surfaces inside homes in an effort to determine if it is safe for residents to return.

Pavley fended off an amendment requested by the Brown Administration that would have permitted injections of gas into the vast underground reservoir to resume before every well is tested if a shortage of natural gas reached the emergency level.

She argued that Gov. Jerry Brown already has the power to permit gas injections to resume under the terms of an emergency proclamation issued in January. That proclamation, along with an order by the state Public Utilities Commission, halted injections and withdrawals of gas from the storage field until all wells pass integrity tests. The volume of gas in the field has been held at a low level pending the well tests.

In its original form, her bill would have barred further injections until all 114 gas wells had undergone a time-consuming battery of six tests.

The version that the Appropriations committee passed Wednesday includes an amendment that Pavley accepted weeks ago that softened the moratorium somewhat.

The bill would require all wells to undergo two fairly quick tests that use noise measurements and pressure tests to detect leaks or anomalies in well casings, some of which reach 9,000 feet underground. Wells that SoCal Gas wants to re-open for use would have to undergo four more rigorous tests that require large rigs to go up at each well and the casings withdrawn and inspected. Any other well in the field would have to be temporarily plugged.

SoCal Gas has predicted that under that scenario, it could begin re-filling the gas field by late summer. However, the company would need the Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources to certify that the field and its operating wells were sound. Also the state Public Utilities Commission would also have to give permission to resume operations. At a public workshop on energy reliability last week, PUC President Michael Picker predicted it could be many months, even a year, before the field reopens for business as usual.

The bill also requires the PUC to determine the feasibility of minimizing or closing the Aliso Canyon gas storage field.

Sen. Bob Huff and Assemblyman Scott Wilk spoke in support of the bill, as did representatives of Los Angeles county and city. The Manufacturing & Technology Association and the Western States Petroleum Association spoke against it. The state Chamber of Commerce is also opposed to the bill.