Gas Company Sues to End County Oversight After Massive Natural Gas Disaster

LOS ANGELES (CN) – After a massive methane gas leak at SoCalGas’s Aliso Canyon underground gas storage facility displaced thousands of families and took more than 100 days to plug, many residents in surrounding neighborhoods felt the energy company had gotten off lightly with a $4 million fine and tightened outside oversight.

But now Southern California Gas, a subsidiary of energy giant Sempra, says Los Angeles County’s attempts to prevent another environmental disaster of that scale go too far.

In a federal lawsuit filed against Los Angeles County and state regulators on Wednesday, SoCalGas claims that the county’s attempts to impose stricter safety standards on its pipelines and underground storage facilities violate a federal law called the Pipeline Safety Act, or PSA.

“Defendants include a state agency and a county that are attempting to impose and enforce safety standards for SoCalGas’ natural gas pipeline facilities, including SoCalGas’ underground gas storage facilities. Defendants’ actions violate the PSA, which expressly preempts all state and local safety standards for natural gas pipeline facilities and precludes state and local authorities from imposing or enforcing safety standards on natural gas pipeline facilities except as permitted under federal law,” the 25-page lawsuit states.

According to SoCalGas, only the California Public Utilities Commission has the authority under federal law to regulate the energy company’s facilities, and the company says that it is in compliance with the regulations the agency imposes.

The county and defendant California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health, on the other hand, have no such authority to regulate the company, according to the filing.

“Clear and consistent regulation by agencies with authority and expertise is key to safety,” SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride said in an email. “SoCalGas is committed to complying with the safety standards and regulations established by those agencies, in this case, PHMSA (US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration), the CPUC [California Public Utilities Commission], and DOGGR [Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources].”

This past March, LA County sued the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources in state court, petitioning for a review of what caused the largest natural gas leak in the nation’s history before SoCalGas is allowed to resume high pressure injections. And before that, the county sued SoCalGas in July 2016 in the same court seeking an order requiring SoCalGas to install subsurface safety valves on its wells. The county said that the largest natural gas distributor in the country uses an aging infrastructure that puts the public at risk of another massive gas leak.

“It puts corporate profits before public safety and fails to make necessary repairs and improvements to its decades-old gas system,” which constitutes an “ongoing and impending risk” of leaks at Aliso and the company’s other gas fields, the county said.

SoCalGas says the “Strike Team” the county assembled to monitor health and safety risks at the company’s natural gas facilities has interfered as the California Public Utilities Commission decides if the Aliso Canyon facility can begin new natural gas injections. The state has also hit the energy company with citations that violate federal law, according to the suit.

“Unless enjoined by this court, the county will not cease its attempts to unlawfully insert itself into the regulation of safety standards for SoCalGas’ pipelines and underground storage facilities,” the lawsuit states.

SoCalGas discovered a ruptured gas well at its Aliso Canyon storage field in the northwest San Fernando Valley on Oct. 23, 2015. After initial efforts to stop the leak failed, the energy company drilled a relief well to intercept it.

The leak displaced thousands of people in the nearby communities of Porter Ranch, Chatsworth, Granada Hills and Northridge. Residents said they suffered from headaches, dizziness, skin conditions, nose bleeds and nausea, aches, pains, and fatigue following the leak. Although SoCalGas insisted that the leak was not harmful to residents, more than 20,000 people have filed legal claims related to the leak, according to the Mercury News.

One hundred thousand metric tons of the potent greenhouse gas, unseen to the naked eye, spewed into the environment before SoCalGas finally plugged the well. That was almost equivalent to the carbon dioxide pollution from burning 1 billion gallons of gasoline, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board.

SoCalGas operates 200 natural gas wells at storage fields at Aliso, Playa del Rey, Honor Rancho-Santa Clarita and Montebello. Its gas wells at the storage fields are an average of 50 years old, according to court records, and some were built more than 80 years ago.

The Aliso Canyon facility provides energy to 21 million people and 500 communities, with the capacity for 86 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Of the 111 natural gas wells at Aliso Canyon, 48 were drilled in 1953.

The ruptured well at Aliso was built in 1979, and the utility knew that the subsurface well was damaged and needed to be repaired, the county said in last year’s public nuisance complaint. But despite the “relatively minimal” cost of replacing or repairing the valve, SoCalGas left the aging well “vulnerable to the catastrophic leak,” the county said.

SoCalGas knows it needs to install new subsurface valves to avoid leaks but delayed repairs to its aging infrastructure because it hoped to pass on the cost of a $236 million repair program to customers through higher rates, the county said last year.

The energy company wants the court to declare that the PSA preempts the defendants’ attempts to regulate it and to block the county from doing so. It also seeks  attorney fees and costs.

It is represented by David Schrader of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

Named defendants are the county of Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Counsel Mary Wickham; the California Department of Industrial Relations; the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and its Chief Juliann Sum; and the California Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.

Los Angeles County counsel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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