Living Without Aliso Canyon's Natural Gas

Lots of residents who live close to SoCalGas's Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility want the place shut down. The blowout at well SS-25 went on for months, making people sick in communities like Porter Ranch, Northridge, Chatsworth, and Granada Hills. Senator Fran Pavley responded by introducing Bill SB 380  that won't let Aliso's 115 wells reopen until they are deemed safe or plugged. She's also weighing whether we can live without the facility altogether.

But now “reliability” is the question hovering in the air, and that includes in the hearing rooms of the Capitol. What's at stake in this legislation is how safe our natural gas infrastructure is, and how quickly we can move away from the fossil fuel to green our future electricity generation. But utilities like Southern California Gas and electricity system operators have sold the idea that, without Aliso Canyon, residents and businesses throughout the Southland may find their stoves go cold and their lights go out. In fact, they question how long the facility can be shut before "reliability" is threatened. 

At an Assembly Utilities Committee hearing last week, Chairman Mike Gatto wanted to be sure that “when folks return to their homes in the San Fernando Valley in August that their air conditioners work.” Many lawmakers, including Gatto, wanted to know whether the area risks brownouts or blackouts if the moratorium goes on too long. For Pavley, the challenge is how to both protect residents who live near Aliso Canyon where other old wells could still blow, while ensuring the energy "reliability" that industry claims is at stake.

But is it really? Here is what we know so far:

Natural gas storage capacity in California, according to the Energy Information Administration, is up by 125 billion cubic feet in the last dozen years--amply more than the total Aliso Canyon storage capacity of 80 billion cubic feet. According to the 2014 CA Gas Report by SoCalGas and other state gas utilities, natural gas usage is in steady, modest decline. That report assumed a 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard. That standard has now been upped to 50%, so the decline in the use of fossil fuels, including natural gas usage, is bound to accelerate. 

In Southern California, the PUC approved five new gas-powered electricity plants, one near Anaheim, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Ventura, and San Diego County within the last year. The total megawatts (MW) of those plants are more than 2100 MW for billions of dollars that will be passed onto ratepayers through high-priced, long-term SoCalEdison and San Diego Gas & Electric purchasing contracts. Why not make a shift away from these plants, fed by Aliso Canyon, to a new generation of large-scale battery stations capable of storing the energy that renewable sources generate, while developing stable sources of consistent geothermal energy such as in Imperial County?

If we did that, we could make Aliso Canyon storage capacity expendable.

Instead, SoCalGas is experimenting with the conversion of wind and solar power into methane gas for injection and storage at Aliso Canyon. Burning that methane later would create more greenhouse gas emissions. Why waste electricity making methane? Why not just put store all the solar and wind energy not used as it is made in battery plants? We have plenty of natural gas we can import already.

Pavley is counting on the PUC to tell us if we can risk mothballing Aliso Canyon. But the PUC, whose coziness with industry and with Governor Jerry Brown is well-documented, has a vested interest in making that determination behind closed doors. The reason for that has to be because PUC commissioners already know what their conclusion will be. Let's not forget that Sempra, SoCal Gas’s parent company on whose board Governor Brown’s sister Kathleen sits, is heavily invested in selling natural gas to Southern California Edison that, in turn, is heavily invested in building new natural gas fired generation plants that the PUC already approved. All roads lead back to stuffing Aliso Canyon full of natural gas.

A fully independent study of the need for Aliso Canyon is what should come next. It's what all Californians deserve who want to stay safe, breathe easy, and green our electricity.


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