California Panel to Decide on Expanding Storage at Site of Infamous Methane Leak, Balancing Risk and Necessity


On Thursday, California officials are due to deliberate on a proposal to increase storage capacity at the site of the nation’s largest known methane leak, which sickened thousands of families in 2015 and forced them to leave their Los Angeles homes.

Residents, environmentalists, and politicians have protested the proposed Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, but utilities and state regulators say it is necessary to prevent fuel price increases this winter.

Issam Najm, an environmental engineer and resident of the Los Angeles suburb Porter Ranch, where thousands of residents were afflicted by the breach, stated, “This is an unnecessary risk to people.”

Each day the facility remains operational, it emits cancer-causing compounds, including benzene, according to Najm, citing reports from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the regulatory agency responsible for monitoring the area’s air pollution.

He and other opponents, including Democratic legislators, argue that the state should hasten California Governor Gavin Newsom’s long-term plan to close the facility, rather than increase its capacity. The facility is scheduled to be shut down by 2027.

More than 120,000 metric tons of methane and other gases were discharged into the atmosphere over the communities of the San Fernando Valley as a result of the 2015 gas breach, which required four months to contain.

Thousands of residents were forced to leave their residences in order to flee a sulfurous odor and ailments such as migraines, nausea, and nosebleeds. In 2021, SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, will resolve with more than 35,000 victims of the breach for up to $1.8 billion.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote in a letter to the commission’s president earlier this month, “Given the history of disasters and risks associated with continued operations at Aliso Canyon, I continue to support a swift closure of the facility.” However, this proposed resolution to expand capacity appears to go in the opposite direction.

Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates and supervises gas, electric, and other utilities, will vote on the proposed expansion. The expansion, according to commission staff, is necessary to prevent gas shortages during the winter and curb price increases, and it will not impact the facility’s closure progress.

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Expansion Proposed for Aliso Canyon Underground Gas Storage Facility in Los Angeles County

A commission administrative law judge proposed authorizing SoCalGas to store an additional 68.6 billion cubic feet of gas underground at the extensive Aliso Canyon field in northern Los Angeles County. The utmost capacity of the facility is 86 billion cubic feet.

Following the breach, the field, which stores gas in ancient wells, was at 50% capacity for years. The commission began expanding its storage capacity in 2020, citing the need to assure natural gas supplies for the upcoming winter months “in a safe and reliable manner.” The current volume is 41.16 billion cubic feet.

Southern California Gas and San Diego Gas & Electric Co., in contending for increased storage, stated that it is preferable to purchase gas in the summer, when it is typically less expensive, and store it for winter use.

Administrative Law Judge Zhen Zhang of the commission noted that the price of wholesale natural gas spiked sharply in California and the West last winter, impacting customers’ energy expenditures.

“On balance, as a matter of policy, it is prudent to take a conservative approach by protecting natural gas and electricity customers from reliability and economic impacts during the upcoming 2023-2024 winter,” the judge wrote.

In a letter opposing the increase and signed by dozens of environmental organizations, activists stated that no shortages were reported during the two years Aliso Canyon was inactive following the explosion.

In a joint statement, Democratic state legislators representing the region stated that the dangers are too large.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, state Sen. Henry Stern, and state Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo said, “SoCalGas claims that increased use of this dangerous gas field will keep prices low, but there are too many unanswered questions to proceed.”

This month, the company reached a second settlement with the California Public Utility Commission, agreeing to pay more than $70 million to the Aliso Canyon Recovery Account to mitigate the leak’s effects on air quality and public health.

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Source: ABC News

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