Reopening Aliso Canyon Without Knowing What Caused Blowout Is Not Smart

State regulators are considering re-opening the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility without knowing what exactly caused the blowout in the first place.  That’s like taking an airplane that just crash landed and sending it aloft again without knowing if the engine’s loose.

But that’s what State Oil and Gas Supervisor Ken Harris said today in a briefing with legislative staff in Sacramento who were asking tough questions about the state’s proposal to reopen 34 of the 114 wells at Aliso—albeit at reduced pressures and with continuous monitoring.

Public Utilities Commission regulators at the briefing hedged on when the “root cause analysis” of the disaster—promised to be shared with the public by Governor Jerry Brown—would be published, saying only by the end of 2017. 

Staffers who assumed Aliso wouldn’t be reopened until the public found out the reasons for the blowout, were disabused of that notion. “The root cause analysis and making a decision to reopen the field are actually independent of one another,” Harris told staffers. “If we decide to reopen before the root cause analysis, I can’t tell you. But we are not holding that decision up based on root cause analysis.” 

If regulators are under pressure to reopen Aliso Canyon, it might have something to do with corporate profits and Governor Jerry Brown's ties to Sempra, the parent of Southern California Gas on whose watch the biggest methane leak in U.S. history happened. Brown's sister, Kathleen Brown, sits on Sempra's board and has benefited directly from that association. Sempra's stock value has soared 116 percent under Brown, more than the state's other two major investor-owned utilities. It's those utilities and other big customers that pay to park natural gas at storage facilities like Aliso Canyon, helping to fill Sempra's coffers.

Kathleen Brown also sat on the board of Forestar Group, a real estate and oil company that plans to build a luxury homes on 700 acres of land next to Porter Ranch, where thousands of residents were sickened by the blow out and forced to flee. She held $749,000 worth of stock in that company as of mid-2015. She stepped down from its board last year.

We don’t really need Aliso Canyon, despite flawed state assessments to the contrary. And despite assurances from Harris about well monitoring and “kill lines” to stop up any misbehaving wells with fluid to keep the public safe, we do know that the field is still a public danger. According to the Los Angeles Times, records submitted to the state suggest some of the now isolated 114 wells still in need of repair or permanent plugging may have underground leaks.

That includes SS-25—the well that blew out and remained impossible to control for months on end, according to what Harris shared today. The well, whose casing is damaged, will be partially extracted in an effort to get to the cause of the blowout. Harris said the extraction is part of the root cause analysis, but said there was no date on the extraction because of concern about safety. “We believe there are gas zones related to the leak, and you don’t want to lose control of the well and there is real concern about the health of the guys on the rigs,” he said. 

If there is concern for the workers, there ought to be for the public. But Harris, who claims that public input at two February hearings on reopening the facility is critical, brushed aside questions about the health implications of reopening Aliso Canyon. “LA County Health has responsibility for any health studies,” said Harris. “We are not involved with that.” 

It appears the state has no problem sending passengers back up in the air with that crash-landed plane. The passengers will have an opportunity to comment on that idea at public hearings on February 1 and 2 in Woodland Hills.

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