Is a Shutdown of Aliso Canyon’s Gas Storage Facility in Sight?

After more than six years of rallies and meetings, many failed attempts at a health study, thousands of illnesses and even deaths among residents and pets, it’s looking like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel concerning the future of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility. The SoCalGas-run operation in the northern San Fernando Valley was the site for the worst gas disaster in U.S. history.

The optimism comes from the Senator Henry Stern’s introduction of SB-1486, a bill designed to compel the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to finally set a close down timeline in motion.

Last week, more than forty residents and coalition activists attended a virtual meeting to support passage of the legislation, and brainstorm ideas for engagement. Among the groups and organizations represented were Food & Water Watch, Save Porter Ranch, Aliso Moms Alliance, Protect Playa Now, and Extinction Rebellion Los Angeles.

The California director for Food & Water Watch, Alexandra Nagy, moderated the discussion. Her presentation first keyed on recent events, including Governor Gavin Newsom’s messaging that Aliso should be closed down. The bill would push the CPUC to move more quickly on Order Instituting Investigation (OII) Proceeding number I1702002, which was opened in 2017 to determine the feasibility of minimizing or eliminating the use of the gas storage facility. She referred to a recent report by FTI (here’s the CPUC summary) that offered ways to achieve reliability without Aliso.

She also mentioned the recent vote by the LA City Council on the LA100 plan to transition to 100 per cent clean energy by 2035. One victory of sorts underscoring the importance of community pressure came from the efforts of residents and activists to call in to the CPUC’s voting meeting in November, and demand that the agency not increase capacity at Aliso. The regulatory agency voted for an increase of a maximum of 41.15 billion cubic feet, rather than the originally planned increase of 68.6 bcf.

Despite the support for closure by former governor Jerry Brown, current governor Newsom, US Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, Congress member Brad Sherman, the County Board of Supervisors, the LA City Council, and the LA Unified School District, the facility remains in operation. SoCalGas and fossil fuel allies, on the other hand, have been working to delay any decisions by the CPUC for the current proceeding.

One factor that could work in favor of closure may be the gubernatorial election this year. Even though there may not be any strong opponents, Newsom may be called upon to demonstrate a commitment by issuing an executive order to give a definite deadline for the permanent shutdown and to require the storage facility to be used only as an “asset of last resort” until the decommission. Previously, he had sent a letter to the president of the CPUC Commission in November 2019, asking the agency to “expedite planning for the permanent closure” of the site.

As for this bill, it would establish a moratorium on the use of the facility, restricting withdrawals to what’s allowed under the current Aliso Canyon withdrawal protocol, which went into effect in July 2019. It would require the facility to be shut down permanently no later than 2027, with the hope it will happen sooner. Among the steps required by SB-1486 will be the establishment of a reliable local generation plan for “extreme weather events,” an enactment of gas demand reduction, and protection for Aliso workers to transition them to clean energy jobs.

The path for the bill to become law will most likely begin with a hearing in the Senate Energy, Utilities, Communications committee, possibly on April 5th, and then the Committee on Labor, Public Employees, & Retirement on April 18th. After a hearing by the Appropriations committee, the bill will be presented on the Senate floor, needing just a majority to pass.

The next steps will take place in the Assembly. Most likely, it will be heard in the Jobs, Economic Development & the Economy Committee, and the Utilities and Energy Committee, in some order. Next will be the Assembly Appropriations committee, then the whole Assembly, again needing a majority. After the Senate votes on it for a final time, SB-1486 will land on Newsom’s desk for his signature.

In the meantime, residents and their coalition of supporters will start actions to support the passage of this bill, despite expected opposition from SoCalGas and fossil fuel concerns.

And speaking of SoCalGas, the utility has recently started to push for its hydrogen project, hinting to politicians that this could be the way to eventually close its Aliso Canyon storage facility. The gas company claimed this is a way to use “renewable electricity sources” to decrease the city’s use of methane gas as well as other fossil fuels.

This was not the utility’s first attempt to promote a project that will enrich its coffers. On December 18, 2015, as the company was trying to kill off the leaking SS-25 well at Aliso, then-CEO Dennis Arriola sent a letter to Jerry Brown to convince him that converting methane released by dairy farm cows into biomethane should be considered mitigation for the carloads of greenhouse gases that filled the L.A. basin during the four-month-long blowout.

During this time, many elected officials including mayor Eric Garcetti, council member Mitchell Englander, and county supervisor Michael Antonovich, were assuring residents affected by Aliso that any mitigation money would be given to green projects in LA County.

But when the 2018 Aliso Canyon consent decree was announced, mitigation funding went to the utility’s pet biomethane project in the Central Valley.

Just as the dairy digester project, which will be a cash cow for the utility, environmentalists should consider the gas company’s hydrogen project as just another Trojan Horse.

A major reason to look askance at the project is that for every 1 kg of hydrogen produced, 9 kg of water is needed. This use of water is especially egregious while the state is in the midst of a mega drought.

Three areas that will be part of the campaign will be networking through coalitions, targeting media and using social media, and promoting community power in the SFV. Organizations and businesses that support the bill can sign on to a letter to Senator Stern. Individuals are encouraged to write letters to the editor, join Twitterstorms, and contact senators and assembly members. Anyone wanting more information on how to help get the bill passed, can email act@fwwatch.org.

A kick off rally in support of SB-1486 will be held on Wednesday, March 30th, starting at 4:30 pm, by the SoCalGas office at 9400 Oakdale Avenue in Chatsworth. Residents, activists, elected officials, candidates, and the media will be invited.

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