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SoCalGas Storage Takes Heat from Wildfire

October 27, 2008
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Sempra Energy's Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas), the nation's largest natural gas distribution utility, confirmed that its major underground storage facility northwest of Los Angeles kept operating and escaped unscathed after being overrun by one of the major wildfires scorching the area Oct. 13-17. While personnel were evacuated from the storage site one day (Oct. 13), the storage operations continued, a SoCalGas spokesperson told NGI.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County elected officials were considering action to eliminate a loophole that now allows the gas utility to operate an unregulated electric distribution line to serve its office and other facilities at Aliso Canyon, a 100 Bcf capacity underground field in a depleted oil and gas area in the northern end of the county.

"The storage facility sustained no damage to its natural gas equipment and there was no interruption of natural gas service, so the storage facility was never really out of operation, only that the employees evacuated for safety reasons," the Sempra spokesperson said.

Los Angeles County officials said the gas utility storage field's apparent involvement igniting the destructive blaze has exposed a regulatory "loophole that should be closed," said Zev Yaroslavsky, one of five elected county supervisors, as reported in the Los Angeles Times Saturday. It was the Times that last Thursday first identified the gas utility electric distribution line as the potential culprit in the Sesnon fire, as far as county and state fire investigators were concerned.

Heavy winds on Oct. 13 apparently blew down the distribution power line that serves the storage facility in an unincorporated, remote portion of the county in the Santa Susana Mountains. California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) investigators were also involved, extending an already ongoing probe from last year's wildfires that raced across San Diego and Orange counties, and in which at least two San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) electric transmission lines were found by the CPUC investigators to have caused major wildfires in late October 2007.

At both the state and local levels, power lines -- mostly high-voltage transmission types -- are gaining a lot of attention as sources of the increased numbers of wildfires in the region.

"The CPUC announced this week that it will review a controversial plan by [Sempra's] SDG&E to shut off power to some rural areas during high wind conditions as a fire prevention strategy," the Times reported last Saturday.

Given the recent state regulatory commission investigation and public hearing in San Diego County last Tuesday on two transmission line-caused wildfires a year ago in that area involving SDG&E, government officials have been concerned that under the apparent regulatory quirk, the SoCalGas distribution power line does not fall under any mandatory third-party inspection.

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