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New California NatGas Storage Rules to Exceed Federal Standards, EDF Predicts

California's permanent new regulations governing natural gas storage are likely to be the most comprehensive in the nation, exceeding whatever the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) comes up with, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) said in an analysis released Friday.

While maintaining that the Aliso Canyon facility should be shut down permanently, Tim O'Connor, EDF's oil/gas program director in California, expressed skepticism that PHMSA's promised new national regulations (see Daily GPI, Oct. 18) will be comprehensive enough.

A year after the four-month-long methane leak at SoCalGas' 86-Bcf capacity storage facility, there is little assurance that similar blowouts won't happen at any of the 400 similar gas storage complexes spread around 30 states nationally, O'Connor said.

"While there has been some progress, it's not nearly enough," said O'Connor, disputing the claims of state and federal regulators, Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and other industry sources that advances are in place now that were not there before the prolonged incident at Aliso Canyon (see Daily GPI, Feb. 18).

Separately, California officials on Friday released a checklist of requirements that must be met before SoCalGas can request resumption of gas injection at the still-closed Aliso Canyon underground storage facility on the northern edge of Los Angeles. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) want SoCalGas to meet the checklist of requirements prior to seeking state approval to resume operations at the storage facility and also another set of requirements once injections are resumed.

"The checklist includes items required in statute, regulations, and orders, and address both individual wells and the field as a whole," a DOGGR spokesperson said. "All of the items on the checklist are aimed at protecting public health, safety and the environment."

DOGGR said Friday that only 28 of the 114 storage wells at Aliso Canyon had passed all of the required tests,* 79 had been temporarily isolated from the storage reservoir, and seven had test results pending. A DOGGR spokesperson said the agency could not comment on EDF's speculation about California's eventual final regulations.

While SoCalGas maintains that is has "significant progress" toward completing DOGGR's comprehensive safety review, the Sempra Energy gas-only utility, the nation's largest, said in a report posted on its website Friday that is has "made comprehensive infrastructure, technology and safety enhancements" at Aliso since the leaking well was capped, including a methane monitoring system now being installed for the entire storage field.

CPUC and DOGGR's requirements include language from Gov. Jerry Brown's emergency proclamation last January, DOGGR's Order 1109, and Senate Bill 380, which was passed earlier this year (see Daily GPIMay 11). They also include evaluations offered by the state Department of Conservation, of which DOGGR is one unit.

The checklist calls for disclosure of the proposed maximum field working pressure and providing separate risk management and spill contingency plans. They would also require alarm-equipped, real-time pressure monitors on all well tubing and tubing-casing and completion of a leak survey of the entire storage field prior to actual authorization.

Nevertheless, O'Connor focused on what he described as "crumbling infrastructure and weak or nonexistent rules" as epitomizing the nation's gas storage network, and Aliso Canyon as a 60-year-old facility that "was not in good shape when one of its wells started leaking uncontrollably." He blamed insufficient state and federal rules requiring SoCalGas to check equipment for damage, or make timely repairs.

"To get the job done, we need concrete state and federal standards with regulators at both levels working together to fix the safety net. There's plenty for California in particular to do, and that process is well underway," said O'Connor.

State officials declined to comment on the potential differences between the developing new state and federal rules.

*Correction: In the original article, NGI incorrectly stated that 28 storage wells at Southern California Gas Co.'s Aliso Canyon facility failed to pass all the state-mandated tests. In fact, only 28 of the storage field's 114 storage wells so far have passed all the tests. NGI regrets the error.

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