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Environment & Science

Is the Porter Ranch blackout warning overblown? Yes, says one expert

A woman takes her morning walk near the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, California.
A woman takes her morning walk near the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, California.

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Critics of keeping the Aliso Canyon gas storage field open after its blowout disaster are at odds with California state energy officials who say the partial shutdown of the facility could lead to power outages on up to 14 days this summer.

State agencies that studied the impact of the partial shutdown proposed an action plan on Tuesday to prevent power outages, but concluded they "will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of gas shortages this summer that are large enough to cause electricity interruptions for the region's residents and businesses."

Their report comes as state regulators investigate the cause of what scientists said was the largest-known release of climate-changing methane in U.S. history. The Southern California Gas Company well leaked out of control for almost four months and sickened Los Angeles residents who lived nearby, displacing more than 6,000 families from their homes.

But Bill Powers, a frequent expert witness before the California Public Utilities Commission, isn't convinced by officials' claims, calling the blackout warning alarmist. He said that in at least the last decade, SoCal Gas has never hit its firm capacity during the summer peak in the L.A. basin. 

“That’s why I see this as crying wolf and locking arms around a concept that Aliso Canyon must remain online, and doing it with poorly supported justifications,” Powers told AirTalk. 

The San Diego engineering consultant is researching claims that the gas storage facility is a necessity for average consumers of SoCal Gas, as opposed to industrial consumers who benefit from lower gas costs resulting from keeping the facility operational.

Powers says the system can be changed.

"They can configure how they operate their system and require of their big non-core customers — who are taking advantage of the abundant storage that SoCalGas has — to trade and work with their gas supplies to absolutely minimize the price that they pay for gas," Powers said. "And at the same time, the primary core customers — the homes and the small businesses — are the ones that are paying the approximately $40 million a year by my estimate to maintain Aliso Canyon to keep it operational. And the customers that live near that facility in Porter Ranch are the ones who are taking most of the physical risk. That is being borne not by the primary beneficiaries which are [non-core] customers, that's being borne by the little guy.”

Powers said neighboring states dependent on natural gas, like Arizona and Nevada, have no storage facilities like SoCal Gas's Aliso Canyon site. He said they only have access to one or two main pipelines to tap into, while SoCal Gas has about half a dozen pipes to tap into. 

Other states do this by putting electric generators on firm gas contracts, Powers said. This means that the generators assure their gas supply by paying for firm interstate capacity. He said that if SoCal Gas did the same, the claim Aliso Canyon's facility is critical would become a "side issue." 

"Pay somewhat more to assure your supply, and it lessens the need for storage," Powers said.

Listen to the full interview above.


Bill Powers, Principal, Powers Engineering in San Diego,  a consulting engineering firm; frequent expert witness before the California Public Utilities Commission

This story has been updated.