Oh California! The state whose actions never quite fully match up to its climate-leadership ambitions. Here it is again, ramping up fossil fuel use, ostensibly to deal with extreme weather caused by excessive fossil fuel use.
In early November, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously to increase the capacity of the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in Los Angeles County. In 2015, a blowout at the facility caused the nation's largest-ever methane leak that took nearly four months to cap and forced thousands of valley residents to flee their homes.
CPUC has now approved expanding storage at the facility to up to 41.16 billion cubic feet, about 60 percent of its capacity, citing a need "to meet the existing needs and maintain energy reliability." Concerns about energy reliability intensified after the state faced rolling blackouts when demand surged this past summer, the hottest ever on record in the United States. California faced an estimated 3,500-megawatt shortage during that period, and officials estimate the deficit could grow to 5,000 megawatts in 2022.
However, it doesn't appear that storage is the real problem here. An independent review commissioned by the California Energy Commission in 2019 found that many of state's energy-reliability concerns were actually due to poorly maintained pipelines, not a lack of storage. The California Independent Systems Operator, a nonprofit state agency that monitors the region's energy grid, also found that the drastic increases and fluctuations in customer rates were largely due to pipeline outages and poor maintenance.
The Aliso facility, which is owned by the utility company SoCalGas, has been required to operate at less than half its capacity since the blowout. But CPUC has been allowing the company to increase that limit incrementally over time. In 2020, a Los Angeles Times report found that although Governor Gavin Newsom committed to shutting down the site during his campaign, its use skyrocketed after he took office.
Over the past year, SoCalGas and a group of oil and gas companies, including California Resources Corporation, Chevron, Phillips 66, and Tesoro, have been asking the CPUC to raise the allowable gas inventory in Aliso Canyon. It appears industry pressure worked.
The CPUC move also comes at a time when local citizen groups, environmental advocates, and lawmakers, including Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, have stepped up calls for the facility to be shut down because of its impact on public health and the climate impact of natural gas, which is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Tens of thousands of Angelenos continue to suffer from persistent health issues associated with exposure to toxic chemicals released during the blowout, including cancer-causing benzene, odorants called mercaptans, and other sulfur-containing compounds, as well as unrefined crude oil particles. (The facility is built in an abandoned oilfield.)
In October, SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, agreed to pay up to $1.8 billion to settle lawsuits by 35,000 people impacted by the leak. The agreement is subject to about 97 percent of plaintiffs accepting the deal.
The company has already paid out a $ 120 million settlement with the city, county, and state for the blowout and agreed to a separate $4 million settlement with Los Angeles county prosecutors for failing to report the leak to state authorities in a timely manner.
Caption: The California Public Utilities Commission voted to increase the capacity of LA's Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility, the site of the nation's largest-ever methane leak.