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Climate and Environment

State Regulators Move To Increase Gas Storage At Aliso Canyon Site

Aerial photo showing the hills behind Aliso Canyon gas field against a blue sky
The Aliso Canyon gas field is located in Northern L.A. County.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist )
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In 2015, the Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout made national headlines as the worst natural gas leak in U.S. history.

Thousands of families in nearby Porter Ranch and Chatsworth were forced to evacuate, and residents have blamed the leak for health issues ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to cancer.

Since then, community members, the L.A. City Council, the County Board of Supervisors, as well as Governor Newsom have all called for Aliso Canyon to be closed.

This week, Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein also urged the commission to move more quickly to close the facility.

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However, on Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utility companies, unanimously approved upping the amount of gas stored in the underground gas reservoir from 34 billion cubic feet to 41 billion cubic feet.

At the meeting, dozens of residents implored the commission to reject any increase because of their worries about the health impacts.

Commissioners say the decision is necessary to meet energy demand in the near-term, but they will continue working to reduce the use of Aliso in the future.

Energy Reliability

The vote was on two proposed increases to the current amount of gas stored at Aliso Canyon, which is 34 billion cubic feet. If the gas reservoir was completely full, it would sit at 86 billion cubic feet.

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One proposed decision was to increase the storage capacity to 68.6 billion cubic feet — that’s about 80% full. The alternative, which was unanimously approved, came from Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves and capped the amount at 41.16 billion cubic feet.

"As we transition to a clean energy economy, we need to ensure energy reliability,” Aceves said in a statement.

“We must do so in a manner that does not detract from our mandate to ultimately reduce our reliance on natural gas infrastructure like Aliso Canyon."

The PUC is studying how to close or reduce the use of the underground gas reservoir in the future.

The vote comes at a time when international leaders are discussing how to curb emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

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On Tuesday at the Glasgow climate summit, President Biden pledged alongside about 100 other countries to drastically reduce methane emissions by 2030.

Even before the massive blowout, carbon dioxide and methane seeped from the natural gas reservoir at Aliso Canyon, making it one of the industry’s biggest climate polluters.

Image depicts a heavily corroded structure at the site of a natural gas explosion in Aliso Canyon.
This photo, which appears in a report of the Interagency Task Force on Natural Gas Storage Safety, shows the damage to Aliso Canyon gas well SS-25 after the massive leak was plugged.
(INTERAGENCY TASK FORCE ON NATURAL GAS STORAGE SAFETY)

Aliso Cough

Residents who live near Aliso Canyon say they’ve been experiencing the effects of chemicals from the gas storage field for years.

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Kyoko Hibino moved to Porter Ranch in 2007. A few years after moving in, she started coughing. She's not alone. Residents call their unexplained reaction “the Aliso cough”.

She also started getting nosebleeds and headaches. Her doctor couldn’t understand it — she’d previously been the picture of health, Hibino said.

Then on October 23, 2015, a smell like rotten eggs settled over the community. Hibino remembers pushing open her door and feeling a strange pressure behind it. When she stepped outside and breathed in, her throat burned.

For 118 days, methane and other dangerous air pollutants such as the carcinogen benzene leaked into surrounding communities. Hibino and thousands of other families had to evacuate.

Last year, Hibino was diagnosed with cancer. She’s in remission, but with no family history of cancer, she believes her illness is a result of the blowout.

When she rides her bike around the neighborhood, Hibino says she still catches strange scents on the breeze and fear sets in. She wonders if she’ll ever feel safe while Aliso Canyon stays open.

“We are dealing with ongoing health issues. It’s not done yet,” Hibino said. “The community’s exhausted. There’s a lot going on that the [Public Utilities Commission] keeps ignoring.”

Concerns Remain

The blowout forced a reckoning with California’s relationship with natural gas, which had been seen as a safer alternative to burning coal for electricity. It was also touted as a dependable "bridge" fuel as the state moves to cleaner energy sources such as solar and wind power.

SoCalGas has argued that increasing the gas stored at Aliso Canyon is necessary as part of this transition.

Hibino and others, however, don’t believe more storage is necessary to meet winter energy needs. They worry SoCalGas has too much financial incentive to keep the facility open.

In 2019, the California Energy Commission, the state’s energy policy agency, requested an independent review of the Aliso Canyon facility. That review found that many of the reliability concerns were actually due to poorly maintained pipelines, not a lack of storage.

The California Independent Systems Operator, a non-profit state agency that monitors the region’s energy grid, also found that the drastic increases and fluctuations in customer rates were largely due to pipeline outages and poor maintenance.

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Updated November 4, 2021 at 12:08 PM PDT
This story has been updated to clarify the timing of health issues experienced by residents.