California Gas Company Faces New Rules After Methane Leak

By BRIAN MELLEY | February 29, 2016

The gas-storage facility that spewed methane uncontrollably for almost four months, driving thousands of families from their homes, won’t resume operations until it has undergone tougher tests than ever required before, a process that will take months and perhaps even longer.

The massive leak drew attention to the Southern California Gas Co. facility and the larger subject of old energy infrastructure nationwide. It also put heat on the state to speed up tougher new regulations that will outlaw a risky practice that put the well in jeopardy of a blowout.

“I wouldn’t say it was a wake-up call. I’d say it was a `You need to accelerate that process,’ ” said Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the state Department of Conservation. “We’ve moved it to the top of the pile.”

In addition to passing emergency regulations, the department’s oil and gas division directed the Aliso Canyon facility to undergo tests expected to last months before it can resume operations. It must also follow safer operating rules that could be expanded to facilities statewide, Marshall said.

Environmentalists and residents sickened by the foul smell and chemicals have called for the facility to be permanently shut down.

Aliso Canyon is a major source of energy for Southern California and state utility overseers are figuring out how to provide power while it’s largely out of commission, as well as exploring what would happen if it never reopens.

During a legislative hearing Monday on a bill that would prevent the facility from storing additional gas while undergoing tests of its 114 wells, state lawmakers were concerned about power outages during a shutdown.

The situation is similar to when the San Onofre nuclear plant shut down in 2013 after a radiation leak, said Michael Picker, the president of the California Public Utility Commission.

“It wasn’t just the power, but it was the ability to support power flows north and south and getting power to certain specific parts of the state,” Picker said. “A transmission line in Northern California isn’t effective in San Diego, for example.”

Unlike electricity that moves rapidly, natural gas flows about 35 mph and comes from out-of-state pipelines, so plans need to be made before it’s needed. In addition to residential and business customers, Aliso Canyon serves dozens of gas-fired power plants.

“They built a system where Aliso Canyon was too big to fail. And it failed,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat who owns a home in Porter Ranch near the facility. “They say, ‘We won’t prove to you it’s safe, we’ll just prove to you it’s necessary.’ ”

If the facility were closed, getting new storage permitted would be unlikely because of community opposition and geologic concerns, said Jay Apt, co-director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. “Taking something offline is probably forever,” Apt said.

SoCalGas Chief Executive Officer Dennis Arreola said the company planned to comply with new requirements and accelerate inspections at the facility that has had leaks and failures from corrosion and heavy use.

The new requirements will put a crimp in the speed at which gas is injected deep underground for storage when demand is low and withdrawn in colder weather or during demand spikes.

Tests will measure the thickness of protective steel casings, corrosion and make sure wells can withstand intense pressures.

The company will now be required to inject and withdraw the gas through narrow metal tubing that runs from the mountain-top facility to abandoned oil wells below.

SoCalGas had been using both the tubing and a much wider steel casing surrounding it to deliver larger volumes of gas. Experts said that was risky because the casing was a safety barrier if the tubing failed.

In the case of the blown-out well, the casing is believed to have failed under high pressure, allowing the gas to escape.

Marshall said the practice, which is fairly common, is forever over at Aliso Canyon and will be banned statewide once new regulations are drafted.

He said that change is “arguably more important” than requiring subsurface safety valves. The well that failed had its safety valve removed in 1979. It wasn’t required and was never replaced.

Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who identified the dual injection and withdrawal practice as a fatal flaw after studying the well’s records, applauded the new rules and test requirements.

He questioned, however, how regulators had been lax for so long.

The agency has been criticized for a lack of industry oversight and acknowledged problems just weeks before the Aliso Canyon leak was reported Oct. 23.

The promise of additional funding for new hires is not likely to appease critics.

“The rules don’t fix the problems at California’s broken oil regulatory agency, which has a scandalous track record of failing to enforce even basic regulations,” said attorney Maya Golden-Krasner of the Center for Biological Diversity.

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