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PHMSA Issues NatGas Storage Advisory; SoCalGas Facing More Lawsuits

Natural gas storage facilities are facing new pressure after the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) pipeline unit issued a safety advisory Tuesday for operators to immediately inspect their facilities. Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), wrestling with the three-month-long Aliso Canyon storage well leak, also is facing more lawsuits.

DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) directed operators to “inspect and take immediate actions" to ensure the safety of underground gas storage facilities across the nation.

"PHMSA is also working to propose new regulations to implement additional safety standards for underground portions of gas storage facilities," said Administrator Marie Therese Dominguez.

Since the SoCalGas leak occurred last October, pressure has been mounting for more federal regulation of underground storage, which mostly is an intrastate activity left to states to regulate with PHMSA guidance (see Daily GPIFeb. 1).

The American Petroleum Institute (API), which sets standards in the oil/gas industry, said the PHMSA advisory was "modeled after industry best practices." API and PHMSA collaborated last year to create recommended practices 1170 and 1171, an API spokesperson.

"PHMSA's new safety advisory is in part guided by the best principles industry already has in place for natural gas storage facilities," said API Midstream Director Robin Rorick. The advisory, which is to be published in the Federal Register, directs pipeline operators about the need to consider, verify and maintain the overall integrity of gas storage wells.

In PHMSA's advisory, storage operators were reminded to "review their operations to identify the potential of facility leaks and failures caused by corrosion, chemical damage, mechanical damage, or other material deficiencies in piping, tubing, casing, valves and associated facilities." It also stressed the need to review the location and operation of shut-off valves and review/update emergency plans.

Separately, two lawsuits were filed against SoCalGas on Tuesday. California Attorney General (AG) Kamala Harris in a lawsuit in a state Superior Court in Los Angeles alleges that SoCalGas did not maintain the integrity of at least one of its 115 storage wells at the 86 Bcf capacity, 3,600-acre Aliso Canyon underground storage field. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey filed four misdemeanor criminal charges alleging the utility failed to immediately report the Oct. 23 leak to state authorities.

The AG’s  lawsuit contends that the nation's largest gas-only utility violated several public health and safety laws. Los Angeles County's allegations are that SoCalGas released air contaminants and neglected to report the release of hazardous materials until three days after the leak was discovered.

"The impact of this unprecedented gas leak is devastating to families in our state, our environment, and our efforts to combat global warming," said Harris.

Harris, a Democrat who is vying in an election this year to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), is seeking relief in the form of injunction, civil penalties and restitution.

There are numerous legal actions pending against the Sempra Energy utility, including one by the Los Angeles City Attorney and another by the regional air quality regulatory board (see Daily GPIJan. 27; Dec. 8, 2015). There also are numerous class action and individual lawsuits by residents displaced from homes near the storage facility in Porter Ranch.

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