Consequences of Gas Leak Could Be California Blackouts

March 2016, Vol. 243, No. 3

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A natural gas well blowout last year that crippled a major energy supply for Southern California could lead to blackouts in the region over as many as 14 days this summer, energy officials said Tuesday.

State agencies that studied the impact of the partial shutdown of the Aliso Canyon gas storage field proposed an action plan to prevent power outages but concluded they “will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of gas shortages this summer that are large enough to cause electricity interruptions for the region’s residents and businesses.”

The report comes as state regulators investigate the cause of what scientists said was the largest-known release of climate-changing methane in U.S. history. The Southern California Gas Co. well leaked out of control almost four months and sickened Los Angeles residents who lived nearby, displacing more than 6,000 families from their homes.

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, said the situation facing the region is similar to the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant near San Diego after a small radiation leak. State officials and utilities had to scramble to find alternate sources of power and were able to avert a blackout crisis.

The report anticipates a typical summer without other supply problems. If it’s hotter than usual, or other problems crop up, the risk of blackouts would increase.

“No matter what we do, there’s always something unexpected,” Picker said.

The Aliso Canyon impact could be felt beyond the Los Angeles area and could hit San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, said Mark Rothleder, vice president of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state power grid.

It could also extend beyond summer. The report said up to 18 days of outages could occur later in the year, though further study is needed.

Aliso Canyon is the largest natural gas storage area in the West and provides fuel for heat in winter and helps power electric plants in summer when energy demand spikes for cooling. Ample storage is needed because natural gas pipelines can’t deliver gas fast enough or carry the capacity needed to meet high demands.

During the leak, the company withdrew most of the gas in the field to relieve pressure on the leaking well and it’s under order from state regulators not to store additional gas deep underground until all 114 remaining wells pass a battery of strict tests.

The field still has some gas in it and one of the proposed plans to prevent power outages calls for using that gas, as well as seeking more energy efficiency and asking residents to conserve.

With the operation limited, it will put a greater burden on other utilities.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, will change the way it does business to “to try to keep the lights on,” said Marcie Edwards, general manager.

Edwards said the company won’t agree to buy gas at a fixed price in advance because of limitations in the delivery system, it won’t sell electricity wholesale to other agencies, and it won’t use the cheapest energy resources first in order to save gas for when it’s needed.

Edwards said it’s too soon to predict what those measures will cost the agency.

Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who authored a bill that would extend a moratorium on gas injections at Aliso Canyon, said the measures will cost consumers tens of millions of dollars.

Pavley said the report shows that only a small margin of additional natural gas is needed to avert supply problems, demonstrating that Aliso Canyon doesn’t need to resume “business as usual.”

Many nearby residents and some environmentalists want to see the facility shut down.

In a statement, SoCal Gas said the report had recognized the facility’s “crucial role” in providing energy to the region.

A consumers group criticized the report for overstating the risk to the power grid by underestimating gas and electricity capacity.

“The assumptions delivered today are designed to spark fear meant to keep Aliso open,” said Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog.

By Brian Melley, Associated Press

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