Judge Refuses to Block California Gas Facility From Reopening

August 7, 2017

A judge has refused to block a Los Angeles, Calif. natural gas storage facility from reopening a year-and-a-half after a major blowout spewed methane that drove thousands of families from their homes.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Wiley ruled last month that state laws prevented him from stopping Southern California Gas Co. from restarting operations at Aliso Canyon. The state had given approval to allow the company to pump gas into underground storage wells after an overhaul and rigorous testing.

The facility above the San Fernando Valley has been largely out of commission since an old well failed in October 2015, unleashing methane for nearly four months and leading 8,000 families to evacuate.

The blowout released the largest-known amount of climate-changing methane in U.S. history and led to widespread complaints of nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and symptoms that persisted even after the leak was capped last year.

Wiley said he understood opponents’ arguments that an extensive safety review had not taken into account the risk of an earthquake from a fault that runs through the field. He acknowledged that the reopening was important to residents of Porter Ranch and surrounding suburbs but that lawmakers had taken authority away from Superior Court judges to overturn orders by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“So what’s my power?” Wiley said. “Zero. I have zero power. Because in the 1950s the Legislature said, ‘Hands off. The PUC owns this problem.'”

Skip Miller, a lawyer for Los Angeles County, disagreed with the judge and filed an appeal to block the facility from reopening.

“I think your honor is just dead-bang wrong,” Miller said. “This is super important to the county of LA and the 30,000 people who live out there.”

The county asked the 2nd District Court of Appeal to block the restart because it was notified the company had planned to resume operations.

Chris Gilbride, a SoCalGas spokesman, said the utility has a few steps to complete before it can resume storing gas and wasn’t sure when it would restart.

The state allowed SoCalGas to resume limited operations under stricter rules put into effect after the blowout. Fewer than half the 114 wells in the field have passed tests that would allow them to be used.

The county, however, said the state’s review didn’t adequately address the threat of a strong quake rumbling across the Santa Susana Mountains where the field is located.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Miller said. “We think they’re jumping the gun.”

The county’s legal filing included emails and a declaration from a former SoCalGas manager who raised concerns several years ago about the danger. Jim Mansdorfer, who managed the company’s gas storage wells for years, said the Santa Susana fault could rupture all wells and release gas at 100 to 1,000 times the rate of the 2015 blowout.

In response, the state said the facility has likely undergone more scrutiny from a regulatory agency than any facility in the U.S. and the county didn’t have a valid claim but could appeal to regulators.

The county’s claims are based on “the vague possibility of a future, hypothetical catastrophic earthquake,” the state said.

“Fearmongering and heated rhetoric aside, the county fails to allege a legal or factual basis upon which relief, let alone emergency relief, may be granted,” Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Rosenfeld said.

SoCalGas echoed the state’s arguments in a legal filing. In a letter to politicians and policymakers it said the county’s claims were “baseless and wrong.”

The company said it didn’t agree with Mansdorfer’s opinion, but it had forwarded his concerns to regulators.

While the company and the state have deemed the facility necessary for home heating and to fuel gas-fired power plants, Southern California has avoided predictions of blackouts over the past year while the facility was closed.

From This Issue

Insurance Journal West August 7, 2017
August 7, 2017
Insurance Journal West Magazine

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