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Five Years Later, It’s All About The Money

The Aliso Canyon gas facility is a disaster waiting to happen (again).

The Aliso Canyon gas facility is a disaster waiting to happen (again).

The author and her family march with community members from Save Porter Ranch, calling for the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility to be shut down. Photo Credit: Alexandra Nagy.

Five years after the Aliso Canyon gas blowout displaced thousands of my neighbors, there is still little regard for the health and safety risks to our community. Five years later, it’s still all about the money.

The blowout awakened our community to the threat quietly lurking beneath our feet for decades. Cut by an active fault and situated on a wildfire-prone ridge, the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility continues periodic leaks that harm our air quality, health, and climate. Recognizing it’s a disaster waiting to happen all over again, legislators started a process to see how we can shut the facility down permanently. While the motivation is right, the process is fundamentally flawed. None of these risks — seismic, fire, health, climate — are included in the decision-making framework that will determine if SoCalGas can continue to operate Aliso Canyon. They have an intricate computer model of the economics of the storage facility, with nothing to weigh the risks.

This oversight has dangerous implications because SoCalGas is constantly putting its finger on the scale as the state calculates energy reliability and cost. They are at every meeting presenting a skewed case for reopening the facility at full capacity. Just last week, SoCalGas petitioned the state to restore full capacity and full pressure. While they claim it will increase energy reliability, their filing also reveals the real reason — it will allow them to restart their “unbundled storage program,” which allows them to rent out excess capacity to the highest bidder. Shareholders for SoCalGas’ parent company pocket 50% of the profit while our community bears 100% of the risk. (Thankfully, state regulators ruled against the move. But SoCalGas continues to influence the process in every way it can.)

Recall this is the same company that was recently fined $3.3 million for being “irresponsible to the public safety,” that falsified years of reports saying the well that blew had a subsurface safety valve in place when it didn’t, and ignored the 60 leaks and 99 casing failures that foreshadowed this disaster.

This process is upside down. SoCalGas will keep pushing state regulators until they get their way. The only way to stop them is to shut the facility down completely. The CPUC’s recent models show we can do that. We could handle the 1-in-35 year coldest winter day without using any gas at Aliso Canyon. That’s with the short-sighted assumption of no major changes to today’s energy infrastructure or natural gas demand. Given the current infrastructure, it would take several exceptionally cold days in a row to cause curtailment of non-core gas users. The current process says the risk of brief disruptions for some customers less than once every 35 years is too much to bear, but ignores the risk of another billion-dollar blowout. It doesn’t have to be this way.

SoCalGas has spent ratepayer dollars lobbying the government and funding front groups with names like “Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions” to try to convince us we have no alternatives. But the truth is the costs of natural gas outweigh the benefits. Instead of fighting over how much money SoCalGas will lose by shutting Aliso Canyon down, we need to reframe the question. How much money could we save by investing in alternatives? Cleaner, safer, and cheaper energy is our future. The pathway to get there is to put the people in our community over the profits of our local utility company.