By Chirag Bhakta
October will mark eight years since a well at SoCalGas’s Aliso Canyon gas storage facility ruptured, leaking 100,000 metric tons of methane, including toxic benzene and formaldehyde, into neighboring communities in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. It was the worst gas blowout in American history.
For months, thousands of residents were displaced, schools were closed, and people grew sick. The years since have been an ongoing nightmare for nearby residents as frequent fires, leaks and the looming threat of infrastructure-wrecking earthquakes threatens their safety. Unfortunately, cancer, asthma and countless other health issues have also become commonplace for the residents of the North San Fernando Valley Despite all this, despite the tireless advocacy of community members, and even despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s promise to shut the facility down, Aliso Canyon remains in active use.
Even worse, this dangerous facility could be expanded in the coming days. The notorious operator of Aliso Canyon, SoCalGas, has applied to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) for a storage capacity increase, wielding a claim that doing so would protect ratepayers from gas price increases. CPUC will vote on the application on Aug. 31.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2021 CPUC ignored pleas from impacted communities and unanimously approved an earlier storage increase, apparently buying claims the expansion was necessary to meet winter energy needs. And yet, despite the storage increase, this past winter natural gas prices spiked for SoCalGas users, putting any claims that an increase at Aliso Canyon will protect users from paying higher rates in serious question.
The truth is simple: Aliso Canyon is not needed at all to maintain energy reliability, and storage increases only serve to enrich SoCalGas.
In fact, in the two years after the blowout, the state adopted mitigation measures and implemented strict regulations ensuring gas withdrawals from the facility were not permitted unless in the case of an emergency. Southern California faced zero blackouts or gas supply shortages while Aliso Canyon was offline.
Aliso Canyon re-opened in 2017. Since then it has continued poisoning nearby communities and Governor Newsom has remained silent. In the wake of this silence, promises of independent air monitoring and a long-term health study have fallen by the wayside. The most resounding silence, though, is Newsom’s failure to commit to a definitive shutdown timeline for Aliso Canyon.
SoCalGas has taken full advantage of Gov. Newsom’s inaction. Its latest storage expansion request comes at a time when the company is attempting to move forward with an ill-advised hydrogen pipeline project that would require the hydrogen to be blended with methane gas. Rightfully there is growing concern that Aliso Canyon could soon store a highly volatile hydrogen/methane blend.
As long as Newsom fails to act, SoCalGas will continue to act with risky impunity, placing its bottom line over public health and safety. The least the governor can do now is to ensure the pending gas storage expansion application is rejected by CPUC. The residents of Porter Ranch and the surrounding San Fernando Valley deserve to live without the fear of another catastrophe at Aliso Canyon. Empty promises from Governor Newsom won’t relieve them.
Chirag Bhakta is the California Director of Food & Water Watch, a national organization fighting for safe food, clean water and a livable climate for all of us. Chirag is based in San Francisco.