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After Aliso Canyon, Pushback Against NatGas in California Grows Stronger

Part of the fallout from last year's prolonged methane leak at the Aliso Canyon underground natural gas storage facility seems to be a growing distrust of natural gas as an energy source.

The skeptics are not just found among climate change-driven environmentalists, but increasingly also have emerged among thought-leaders and some of the general public throughout California, the state President Trump has declared as "out of control."

It is not quite in parallel with the "Keep-It-in-the-Ground" anti-fossil fuel movement, but somewhat of an offshoot of Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) multi-year national research and advocacy effort aimed at plugging methane leaks in the natural gas supply chain from production fields to burner tips.

State and local officials are now pushing legislative proposals aimed at cutting back on gas use in power generation and other areas, and they want Southern California Gas Co.'s 86 Bcf capacity Aliso Canyon facility closed permanently, or tightly restricted in any future use. It remains closed now, although SoCalGas took some small withdrawals two days in late January to avert a weather-driven supply shortfall.

Last Tuesday, three state lawmakers urged the California Energy Commission (CEC) to reconsider the need for new gas-fired peaking generation units in Oxnard, CA, 50 miles west of Los Angeles, to replace some out-of-date gas-fired baseload units. The Puente Power Plant is a project proposed by independent power producer NRG Energy Inc., which has a contract to supply peaking power to Southern California Edison Co.

Growing concern about the state's power reserves being over-built and thus causing billions of dollars of annual overcharges to retail customers was further fueled earlier this month by a front-page investigative report in the Los Angeles Timesconcluding that California is awash in excess generating capacity that is unneeded and being paid for by retail utility customers.

Generally, state officials have defended the state's level of reserves as a prudent way to ensure grid reliability. Critics alleging oversupplies fail to see the complexities of managing a power grid, a Sacramento-based CEC spokesperson told NGIon Wednesday, and officials at the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) concurred with this assessment on Thursday.

The LA Times' report failed to consider three factors inherent in power generation operations, CEC and CAISO officials said. One is the state's requirements for more renewables, such as wind and solar, which require more storage and/or backup supplies based on natural gas. In California currently 27% of the power comes from renewables.

Second, the CEC official said, California will have 8,600 MW of gas-fired, once-through-cooling power generation retiring in the next five years. And then a third factor is the need to maintain (sometimes uneconomic) power generation in locally constrained areas for grid reliability.

Regarding the critics and Times' report that the state's electric rates are the highest in the nation, the CEC spokesperson said that is not true for monthly utility bills. "California's electricity rates may be higher than average when compared to other states, but the actual bills are less than average [nationally]," he said.

On Thursday, the state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee heard testimony on a proposal (SB 57) by Sen. Henry Stern, whose district includes Aliso Canyon, that would stop any reopening of the 3,600-acre storage facility until an ongoing investigation of the root causes of last year's storage well leak is completed and made public.

Five advocates of keeping the Sempra Energy facility shut testified, including the Los Angeles County fire chief, an LA County public health department official, a representative of the Porter Ranch Neighborhood Council and Tim O'Connor, EDF lead methane emissions expert in the state.

Last Wednesday, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, whose district includes Porter Ranch and who has been an outspoken critic of SoCalGas, said he is going to urge the council to request that the city utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), in 30 days report on options it has to reduce the city's reliance on natural gas and storage in local communities.

Historically, LADWP has relied on SoCalGas storage for its Los Angeles Basin generation plants, all of which run on natural gas.

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