A woman walks past a Porter Ranch sign at the entrance to Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon storage field. Photo by Lucy Nicholson via Reuters

Southern California Gas Co. can resume operations at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch now that a state appellate court judge has reversed an earlier ruling putting those plans on hold.

One day after it handed down the ruling blocking the re-start of gas injections at the facility, the 2nd District Court of Appeals reversed itself late Saturday, calling off the decision in response to a legal challenge filed by SoCalGas.

“The Request for Judicial Notice is granted. The temporary injunction issued by this court on July 28, 2017, is dissolved,” the court said in a concise statement released Saturday evening.

In a 25-page response filed Saturday afternoon by SoCalGas attorneys and obtained by City News Service, the utility argued the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources both determined the location is safe to contain natural gas in limited amounts.

The decision capped a flurry of legal maneuvers that began early Friday afternoon when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. refused a Los Angeles County request to block the re-start of gas injections at the storage site, which has been closed since the largest methane leak in U.S. history temporarily displaced dozens of Porter Ranch residents in late 2015- early 2016.

Wiley ruled that he did not have the authority to “interfere” in the operation of a facility governed by the public utilities commission.

The stay issued just hours later by the 2nd district court followed an emergency filing by attorneys for Los Angeles County.

Under that order, SoCalGas was “temporarily enjoined from injecting natural gas into the Aliso Canyon underground reservoir” pending further consideration of the issue.

SoGalGas was given until 6 p.m. Saturday to respond to the temporary stay, which it did by mid-afternoon, utility spokesman Chris Gilbride said.

Not long after receiving the response, the appellate court called off the previous day’s temporary ban.

“(Saturday’s) decision by the court of appeals is the right one,” Gilbride said. “Aliso Canyon is safe to operate. This is not just our conclusion, but the conclusion of the only state regulators with lawful jurisdiction and expertise to oversee the safety of our operations.”

According to Gilbride, the utilities commission and the DOGGR have said delaying the resumption of injections could pose an energy reliability risk to the Los Angeles Basin.

“The CPUC has directed SoCalGas to maintain natural gas inventories at Aliso Canyon necessary to support the reliability of the region’s natural gas and electricity systems,” Gilbride said.

But Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger expressed disappointment with the latest court decision and vowed to continue the fight.   “This decision by the Court of Appeals to dissolve the temporary stay (blocking) re-injection at the Aliso Canyon facility is an unfortunate setback for the community of Porter Ranch and the northwest San Fernando Valley,” Barger said in a prepared statement. “The County will file a full writ petition with the Court of Appeals on Monday, requesting an immediate stay to allow the Court to consider the merits of the petition.

I strongly believe that without a root-cause analysis, seismic risk assessments and a longterm energy reliability study, this facility — which jeopardized the health and safety of local families for months — should not be allowed to reopen.”

But CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan said the facility would be restricted to about 28 percent of its normal operating capacity, “just enough to avoid energy disruptions in the Los Angeles area.”

Concerns have been raised in the months since the leak about the possibility of electrical shortages due to the lack of natural gas from the Porter Ranch-area facility to operate Southland power plants.

Critics have blasted such claims as scare tactics meant to pressure regulators into allowing Aliso Canyon to resume operating — an accusation SoCalGas executives vehemently deny.

SoCalGas officials said the original leak was discovered on Oct. 24, 2015 and continued emanating methane until a Feb. 11, 2016 announcement that the leak had been capped.

At its peak, the escaping gas forced an estimated 15,000 Porter Ranch area residents to temporarily relocate.

A study by researchers at the UC campuses in Irvine and Davis determined the leak put enough methane into the air each day to “fill a balloon the size of the Rose Bowl” and confirmed it was the largest in the nation’s history.

The Aliso Canyon site has been out of use since the nearly four-month leak placed an estimated 109,000 metric tons of methane into the air.

In court papers filed Monday, attorneys for the County argued that Aliso Canyon “cannot withstand” a major earthquake, and said there is a 60 to 80 percent chance of such a temblor occurring in the Aliso Canyon area over the next 50 years.

SoCalGas officials said concerns about seismic safety were “carefully considered” by state regulators before they decided the facility is safe to resume limited operations.

“SoCalGas has met, and in many cases, exceeded the requirements of the state’s year-and-a-half long review,” Gilbride told CNS. “In fact, DOGGR says Aliso Canyon `has undergone more safety and regulatory scrutiny during this period than any of California’s 13 other underground natural gas storage facilities, and likely more safety scrutiny from a regulatory agency than any other gas storage facility in the United States.”

–City News Service

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