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California Drafts Emergency NatGas Storage Rules

Responding to Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandate amid heightened safety concerns about the nearly three-month-old Aliso Canyon well leak, California regulators on Friday served notice of issuing emergency natural gas storage regulations.

The statewide underground storage facility regulations were required by Brown's declaration earlier this month of a state of emergency because of the Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) leak  (see Daily GPI, Jan. 6). The emergency rules will go to the state Office of Administration Law (AOL) for review on Jan. 26, according to the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).

Department of Conservation (DOC) Chief Deputy Director Jason Marshall said the new regulations would "significantly strengthen state oversight of gas storage facilities." They are aimed at ensuring public health and safety along with protecting the environment.

Among the new requirements, which must first pass muster with the state AOL, are:

  • Daily inspection of gas storage wellheads with advanced leak detection equipment;
  • Ongoing verification of the mechanical integrity of all gas storage wells;
  • Ongoing measurement of circular-shaped gas pressure or gas flow within wells;
  • Regular testing of all safety valves used in wells;
  • Establishing minimum and maximum pressures for each underground gas storage field; and
  • Establishing comprehensive risk management plans for each storage facility in the state.

Longer term, DOGGR plans to initiate another process to establish permanent regulation for gas storage, which the agency said would involve "significant" public review and input.

This action comes when news outlets are reporting that DOGGR and utility officials are increasingly worried about the risk of a well blowout that would send ever-larger volumes  methane into the atmosphere.

Marshall said SoCalGas has been taking great care at the wellsite as the work to drill two relief wells continues, with plugging of the well expected in late February or early March.

Pressure by environmental groups and stakeholders to bring more attention to the ongoing stubborn leak continued Friday with a demonstration at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters in Washington, DC. Another was planned Saturday at the South Coast Air Management District offices near Los Angeles to dramatize the need for federal agencies to intervene and for curbing methane emissions from major gas infrastructure.

Several California members in Congress also have asked federal agencies to get involved, although traditional gas storage operations have been left to the states to oversee.

In that regard, Marshall said the well blowout concerns are tied to the fact that early and unsuccessful attempts by SoCalGas to stop the leak through pumping drilling mud into the wellhead have made the well more unstable. That work has now ceased as drilling of primary and backup relief wells continues.

"The wellhead should be stable so long as there are no more top-down attempts to kill the leaking well," a DOGGR spokesperson told NGI. "Work to stop the leak through the wellhead was ceased as of Dec. 22, and the relief well now is the method by which the leak will be ended."

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