On November 21, a small amount of bromine trifluoride was accidentally released from the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Southern California.
There were no injuries from this toxic and highly reactive industrial chemical, but residents of the nearby Porter Ranch neighborhood say this accident, in addition to other leaks and malfunctions at the facility in the past year, fortifies their resolve to close Aliso Canyon permanently.
Since Aliso Canyon’s October 2015 natural gas blowout displaced thousands of residents and two Los Angeles public schools in this community, residents have called on lawmakers to shut down the entire 3,600-acre gas field beneath the hills north of Porter Ranch.
Now residents say they’re racing against time to prevent SoCal Gas from reopening its idled Aliso Canyon storage facility, the site of the largest human-caused release of greenhouse gases in U.S. history.
Residents: SoCalGas Is Jumping the Gun
On November 1, SoCalGas submitted a status report and safety review on all 114 wells in support of its request to reopen Aliso Canyon. The report detailed improvements to the facility, including new inner tubing for wells approved for injection, pressure monitoring of all wells, and an infrared methane detection system.
Many nearby residents say the company’s motion is premature. Their response is to bring as many school boards, politicians, and city councils to their side, to build a critical mass of elected officials urging the governor and state regulators to decommission Aliso Canyon.
On November 15, the governing board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted unanimously to ask the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), and Governor Jerry Brown to not reopen Aliso Canyon.
The board made its decision, it said, based on impassioned testimony from parents and children in the adjacent Porter Ranch neighborhood that they’re still getting sick more than eight months after the well was capped at the facility.
SoCalGas warns residents of a recent release of a toxic substance from the Aliso Canyon facility.
In addition to the school district vote, the LA County Board of Supervisors has voted to write a letter to Governor Brown urging him to reject the company’s request until two reports are completed: the root-cause analysis of the blowout and a feasibility study on the effects of shutting down Aliso Canyon.
The incomplete studies should be more than enough reason to stop SoCalGas from fast-tracking Aliso Canyon’s reopening, says Matt Pakucko, president and co-founder of community group Save Porter Ranch, the group waging the battle to keep the facility closed.
“SoCalGas is actually asking to reopen the facility without even learning the ultimate cause of the blowout,” Pakucko tells DeSmog. “Incredible.”
Safety of Facility Questioned
While gas company officials say they’ve improved the safety of the 114 remaining wells and met state requirements for reopening, they haven’t said whether any new shut-off valves have been added to the facility, an issue of great concern to residents.
In late December, SoCalGas admitted that there had been no safety valves on new and replacement wells at the facility at the time of the blowout, valves that could have stopped the emission of an estimated 100,000 metric tons of methane over four months.
It’s highly unlikely that SoCal Gas has added safety valves or implemented earthquake mitigation measures, Pakucko says.
“SoCalGas won’t even utter the word 'earthquake,' even though their wells go right through an active fault line,” Pakucko tells DeSmog.
Senate Bill 380, sponsored by Senator Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and signed into law by Governor Brown in May, calls for a public hearing no later than July 1 of next year to determine the consequences of shutting down the facility. No date has been set for such a hearing.
SoCalGas did not respond to a request for comment on the safety and status of its wells at Aliso Canyon.
Residents Target Governor with Efforts
A decision on reopening is up to the executive director of the PUC, but residents who want Aliso Canyon decommissioned say they want to bypass the PUC by urging Governor Brown to issue an executive order. They believe efforts to get school boards, lawmakers, and neighborhood councils across the region to weigh in could be enough to bring Brown to their side, even if oil and gas regulators declare the facility safe to reopen.
Residents and advocacy group Food & Water Watch are also calling on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA City Council to come on board with supportive resolutions for shutting down Aliso Canyon permanently.
“If Governor Brown was serious about calling out Trump for being a climate denier, then he must work to keep Aliso Canyon shut down and decommission this facility,” Alexandra Nagy, Southern California organizer for Food & Water Watch, tells DeSmog.
SoCal Gas’s Strategies for Reopening Aliso Canyon
While residents have used grassroots efforts to build support for closing Aliso Canyon, SoCal Gas has relied on what environmentalists and watchdogs call scare tactics. The company maintains that the Aliso Canyon field is critical to providing energy to more than five million residential customers and dozens of power plants throughout the region and that without Aliso Canyon operating at full capacity, the LA basin would be subject to rolling blackouts.
Not only did those blackouts not materialize, the company’s claim that the facility is necessary is false, according to an independent report completed earlier this year.
“Aliso Canyon is a piggy bank for the company,” Pakucko says. “They use it to sell gas and ship it to the highest bidder, including Mexico, and very rarely will they use it for residents [of the LA basin].”
Lisa Tucker, consumer advocate of Southern California-based Consumer Watchdog tells DeSmog that SoCalGas may be pushing regulators to open part of the facility right away, making reopening of the entire facility a fait accompli.
“We know that 29 wells have passed integrity tests and another 80 are idled for now,” Tucker says. “If I were the company I would want to get the camel’s nose under the tent so to speak and open those 29 wells as soon as possible, and I think that’s what they’re hoping to do.”
Main image: Members of the activist group Save Porter Ranch rally at Los Angeles City Hall in June 2016. Credit: Save Porter Ranch