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Aliso Gas Storage Critical, Eventually to Restart, Say Federal Officials

The 86 Bcf capacity Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage field on the northern edge of Los Angeles is vital to the region's energy reliability and can be safely reopened, according to federal officials heading an interagency nationwide task force.

The task force has recommended tighter testing and safety measures for the nation's 400-plus gas storage facilities.

Officials with the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Transportation's (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) hosted a webinar Tuesday, during which they offered support for how California officials handled the four-month-long leak at the Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) storage field that was plugged in mid-February (see Daily GPIOct. 18; Feb. 18).

DOE’s Franklin Orr, undersecretary for science and energy, and Marie-Therese Dominguez, PHMSA administrator, reiterated the importance of the nation's gas storage facilities and said through the new federal initiative, associated storage infrastructure must be strong enough to "maintain energy reliability, protect public health and preserve the environment."

Residents near the 3,600-acre, 44-year-old gas storage field, which was developed in an abandoned oilfield, have voiced concerns about reopening the facility. However, Orr and Dominguez expressed confidence that state officials will get to the root-cause of the failure.

The two federal officials were at the SoCalGas facility while the leak was being repaired, and Dominguez said they "saw first-hand what happened to the community and the displacement that occurred."

Moving forward, "California is doing a full investigation on the root cause, and is looking at the larger landscape of regulations and public policy coming out of the specific situation at Aliso Canyon, and at the federal level, we're looking at it to make sure there is never another Aliso Canyon and all states have the same standards."

Orr said the federal agencies understand the disruptions that occurred because of the Aliso Canyon leak, and the new national standards will be aimed at "learning the lessons from Aliso and making sure it never happens again." He also said 18 mitigation measures were put in place by state and utility officials to help reduce peak demands and balance gas pipeline loads this past summer.

"They were able to avoid problems, but both nationwide and in the Los Angeles Basin there is no question that there is a need for storage in times of highest demand in both the summer and the winter," Orr said. "Storage facilities will play an important role going forward, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they are operated safely."

SoCalGas said that 27 of 114 storage wells had passed all tests as of Oct. 19 under the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources' (DOGGR) comprehensive safety review project. New inner tubing has been installed in 40 wells. Another 78 wells have been taken out of operation, at least temporarily (see Daily GPIOct. 6).

When all the well tests are completed, the Sempra Energy utility plans to seek state approval to resume injections at Aliso, but no one is offering any target dates for when new injections might be allowed as the winter heating season approaches (see Daily GPIAug. 17).

In the meantime, SoCalGas continues to support the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) safety/enforcement division's and DOGGR's ongoing root-cause investigation, which is expected to be completed by mid-2017. The two state agencies control the timing for that work.

"We have watched closely the efforts of DOGGR, the CPUC, and California Energy Commission as they established an emergency set of regulations and are working toward a final set," Orr said. "The three state agencies have required very careful testing of the wells and they will isolate any wells not tested.

“Those tests do provide a framework of reasonable assurance that they will be able to operate [the storage field] safely, so there is a process in place to make sure the facility is to be operated that way, but that is under state -- not federal -- control."

At the end of last month, the CPUC notified SoCalGas that it was cutting in half the utility's minimum withdrawal capability at Aliso from 17.5 MMcf/hour to 8.6 MMcf/hour in recognition of the effectiveness of the summer mitigation measures and the moderate weather the region experienced.

In addition, CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan authorized SoCalGas to isolate a number of Phase 1 tested wells that have been identified for use in withdrawals within the limit of 8.6 MMcf/hour (207 MMcf/d) withdrawal rate.

Industry observers have calculated that with current limitation of 15 Bcf of usable supplies in Aliso and the utility's other three underground storage facilities, which collectively hold about 49-50 Bcf, about 64-65 Bcf in total would be available at the start of winter in Southern California, compared to the collective total of 136 Bcf when Aliso is at its historic capacity levels.

"In accordance with new regulations and state laws, withdrawal and injection of natural gas now will occur only through newly installed inner tubing of wells approved for use by DOGGR," a SoCalGas spokesperson said. "Physical barriers, or casings, around the new inner tubing will provide a second layer of protection against leaks."

Meanwhile, nearby residents in the upscale Porter Ranch suburban community and environmentalists want to close the facility permanently. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Tuesday also weighed in, praising the task force recommendations, but indicating he "stands fast” against reopening Aliso “until it meets all state criteria for safe operation."

A spokesperson for environmental group Food & Water Watch also warned that the state's criteria for underground gas storage are allegedly "inadequate to protect the health and safety" of local citizens. The environmental group claims that Porter Ranch residents continue to suffer ill health effects from the aftermath of the leak.

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