Aliso Canyon gas field should stay closed as questions remain open: Guest commentary

By: Henry Stern and Kathryn Barger

January 31, 2017

What caused the blowout at Aliso Canyon discovered in October 2015? Fifteen months later, we still don’t know.

And yet, without any answers as to why that well failed, state regulators and the Southern California Gas Co. are poised to re-open the natural-gas storage field in February, with the tired threat of blackouts hanging over our heads.

There is no rush to re-open Aliso Canyon. In the winter of 2015, with the facility still spewing gas, and a community sickened, the company warned of blackouts. Nothing happened. Last summer, with the field sealed, again we heard the familiar blackout cry.

Instead, what we saw was a major buildout of local clean energy and storage projects, creating good jobs, protecting ratepayers with a more resilient and diversified energy system, and rendering blackout fears moot. Our regulators, entrepreneurs and utilities snapped into action and rose to the call of duty.

The crisis at Aliso, and our old way of storing energy through underground gas storage, has given rise to a new way. The world’s largest battery storage project will come online this week, right here in Southern California, which came in under budget, ahead of schedule, with zero emissions, contributing to a new diversity in our energy mix that will reduce our reliance on a single source of fuel for our heating and power needs.

We can and should incorporate more clean energy storage into our system to reduce risk — not just to residents of the North San Fernando Valley, living in the shadow of Aliso Canyon, but to all ratepayers in Southern California who will benefit from a more resilient, more diversified, cleaner grid.

Meanwhile, the root cause of the Aliso incident remains unknown. In fact, the investigation hasn’t even begun. And our community remains in limbo.

While emergency conditions appear to be behind us, there is no guarantee that a leak won’t happen again.

We need to heat our homes in the winter and use air conditioning in the summer, and we trust public utilities like SoCalGas to meet those needs. But the Aliso incident shattered that trust.

The only way to rebuild that trust is through transparency and accountability from both the Gas Company and state regulators.

That’s why we are committed to advancing Senate Bill 146: to require California regulators and independent safety experts to get to the bottom of what happened at Aliso Canyon before considering the field’s re-opening. Our hope is that this emergency legislation won’t be necessary, and that state agencies and the Gas Company will adopt this common-sense approach on their own.

But based on the Gas Company’s saber-rattling over gas shortages and blackouts, and without any concrete evidence to justify the need for emergency withdrawal, it looks as if they will ask Californians to take them at their word.

The strongest path to rebuilding public trust and getting our community back to normal is for state regulators and energy suppliers to slow down, get to the bottom of why the blowout occurred, and come back to the public with answers.

We must also look to the future for our energy reliability needs, not to the past.

A public meeting with state regulators to discuss the proposal to re-open Aliso Canyon is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 1, and Thursday, Feb. 2, from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hilton in Woodland Hills. We will attend the Wednesday night meeting.

All residents may attend or submit opinions in advance. More information can be found on the California Department of Conservation website, www.conservation.ca.gov, or by calling 916-322-3080