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California regulator OKs expansion of Aliso Canyon storage capacity, despite fears

The storage facility, the site of the largest methane gas leak in U.S. history, will now be allowed to store even more gas.

(CN) — The California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously Thursday to expand the natural gas storage capacity at Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, the site of the largest methane gas leak in U.S. history.

The plan to expand the facility from 41.2 billion cubic feet to 68.6 billion cubic feet faced strong opposition from residents of Porter Ranch, environmental groups and even a few elected officials.

"Our constituents are still living with the environmental catastrophe that is Aliso Canyon," said Aaron Ordower, the environmental deputy for LA County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, during the meeting's two-hour public comment period. "This is not a responsible solution to problem at hand."

He and other speakers urged the commission to close the facility, as indeed Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to do when campaigning for his first term, citing the safety of the community and climate change.

But the five commissioners, appointed by Newsom, defended their decision to allow the utility to store more gas, saying it was a necessary step to avoid price spikes and blackouts.

"This decision is not about using natural gas," said Alice Reynolds, president of the commission, "it’s about storing natural gas for the winter."

She added: "We're working to reduce our reliance on this storage facility, but frankly, we’re not there yet."

Gas prices spiked in California during the last winter — some customers saw their bills rise more than 200%. Many blamed a gas shortage brought on by low storage capacity, although others have suggested that perhaps the utilities are to blame. In March, Newsom asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to look into whether "market manipulation, anticompetitive behavior, or other anomalous activities" were behind the price spikes. That investigation remains ongoing.

But 11 state lawmakers wrote a letter to the state utilities commission last week, urging them to reject the proposed increase in capacity to Aliso Canyon "because is it premature due to outstanding investigations, [and] it’s based on a false premise that more storage would’ve prevented last winter’s price spike when all evidence from past winters does not support that."

The Aliso Canyon gas leak, which began in 2015 and was caused by a corroded pipe, went on for nearly four months, and sent nearly 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere near the neighborhood of Porter Ranch in the city of Los Angeles. According to one report, the leak released as much if not more carbon into the air than the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Residents said they experienced headaches, nausea and severe nosebleeds. Thousands of people and two schools had to be relocated.

SoCal Gas pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay $4 million in fines, and faced countless lawsuits from businesses and residents. In 2021, the utility agreed to pay $1.8 billion to settle suits filed by approximately 35,000 individual plaintiffs.

California has adopted ambitious goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85% and its gas consumption by 94% in the next 22 years, which officials say would help make the state carbon neutral. And even though the state now produces about a third of its energy from renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal power, demand for heat and electricity isn't constant — it surges in the winter and summer, when residents use a lot of heat and a lot of air conditioning, respectively. And so the state has been struggling to build out not just its capacity to produce renewable energy, but its capacity to store that energy.

"We’re in a transition time," Reynolds said during Thursday's meeting. "We currently have few alternatives, especially for low income and vulnerable communities."

Thursdays vote to allow SoCal Gas to expand its inventory limit is an interim decision, and could be rolled back by the commission in the future.

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Categories:Energy, Environment, Politics, Regional

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