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Environmental Groups Call Blackout Warnings Scare Tactics

KPCC 89.3 FM Pasadena, CA

Environmentalists are challenging warnings from state energy officials that low natural gas reserves resulting from the gas leak near Porter Ranch could lead to isolated blackouts this summer.

A report commissioned by advocacy group Food and Water Watch and presented by Consumer Watchdog argues that Southern California Gas Company can function without returning its Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility to full use.

"Angelenos need to know that we have plenty of capacity for natural gas and electricity in Southern California," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.

The groups' assessment was a response to a joint report last week from the state Energy Commission, the Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent Systems Operator that predicted Los Angeles and surrounding counties could see 14 to 32 days of isolated power blackouts if the Aliso Canyon storage field is not returned to use. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Southern California Gas Company also contributed to the state report.

Energy consultant Bill Powers challenged those blackout predictions and the assumptions underlying them in the report he authored at the behest of the advocacy groups.

"The utility knows that all it has to do is raise the spectre of a blackout, and it will get Aliso back," Powers said.

He called the state report "a document that is using sensationalism and poorly substantiated numbers to allow [Southern California Gas Company] to get its objective," of returning Aliso Canyon to full use.

He said the gas company has the ability to buy more gas -- 3.875 billion cubic feet --  than it uses on days of peak demand, like hot summer days or cold winter nights. Powers said the company doesn't need the added storage at Aliso Canyon because peak demand hasn't exceeded 3.7 billion cubic feet in recent years.

Powers argues that two other local storage fields near Santa Clarita and Playa del Rey could supplement the gas supply when the region uses more.

Located just north of Porter Ranch, the massive underground gas reservoir at Aliso Canyon has been held to less than one-fifth its capacity of 86 billion cubic feet of gas since the four-month gas leak was stopped. The state has ordered that no new injections or withdrawals of gas may be permitted until all wells on the site undergo testing.  A gas well ruptured in late October and poured methane into the atmosphere through mid-February.

Normally, the gas company would fill the storage field during summer, when gas prices are lower, and withdrawals are rare. It would empty the field during the winter when homes and businesses use more gas for heating. What's left in the field now is about what the region uses on about three to four very hot or cold days.

State officials say the gas field is an important backup supply of gas. They say it also helps to regulate pressure on gas lines throughout the Los Angeles area.  SoCal Gas makes money storing and transporting gas that local utilities buy on the open market from out-of-state suppliers. 

Officials of three state energy agencies and the LADWP sent a combined response to the advocates' report. They say Powers doesn't understand the operating constraints of the region's gas and power systems.

The Aliso Canyon gas storage field helps the region balance the hourly demands for gas from local power plants, said Albert Lundeen, spokesman for the state Energy Commission. SoCal Gas' pipelines cannot move enough gas from its out-of-state suppliers into its own pipes fast enough to match customers' demands. But he said the company can meet that demand when it is drawing on the Aliso Canyon storage field. The other gas fields near Santa Clarita and Playa Del Rey cannot get enough gas to the right locations fast enough to meet changing demands, Lundeen said.

Without Aliso Canyon available, the state energy agencies have suggested a list of 18 measures to reduce electrical and natural gas use.

Powers praised the portion of the state report that describes steps the region's power producers can take to stretch their gas supply further.

Those steps would require power plants in the L.A. region to plan their gas use and power generation more carefully, as utilities do in regions like Arizona and Nevada that do not have underground storage reservoirs. Also, utilities could stop producing excess power for sale to users outside the region.

Powers called the state energy officials report on power reliability a "marketing brochure with some unsubstantiated numbers in it."

Powers said SoCal Gas wants to resume operation at  the Aliso Canyon gas storage area because it makes money storing gas there for other power utilities including LADWP. He said  SoCal Gas is also in the midst of constructing a new, $200 million expansion project that would earn the company far more once completed.

The company won approval from the state Public Utilities Commission several years ago to construct new turbines that compress gas before it is injected underground. Once completed, the underground storage field is projected to increase its storage capacity by about 50 percent, increasing the pressure of the gas as well. That's un unpopular notion among some Porter Ranch residents who fear the higher volume and pressure of gas could cause or exacerbate future leaks similar to the gas well that ruptured and flowed methane uncontrolled into the atmosphere for four months.

Powers and Court said the combined energy agencies were not sufficiently independent of gas and power utility influence to issue an accurate report that considers going forward without re-filling the Aliso Canyon storage field.

They suggested the State Controller or State Auditor take over the task of analyzing the region's energy reliability and power outage risks if Aliso Canyon storage field is kept offline.

In a statement responding to Power's report, SoCal Gas spokesman Chris Gilbride said the state's position is that Aliso Canyon storage is critical to ensure the reliability of power for Southern California and that reliance on natural gas would continue to grow, increasing the need for such local storage.