Photographer: Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg

Biggest U.S. Gas Leak Threatens Summer Blackouts in California

  • Agencies say using Aliso Canyon gas would limit shortages
  • Los Angeles customers encouraged to conserve power, gas use

The biggest natural gas leak in U.S. history, permanently sealed in February, is still haunting California.

Injections of gas into the Sempra Energy storage field where the leak occurred have been restricted since last year, with 15 billion cubic feet in supplies remaining at a time when the site is usually starting to stock up for the cooling season. The restrictions may lead to blackouts this summer for millions of Californians, state agencies said in a report Tuesday.

Source: Genscape data compiled by Bloomberg
Source: Genscape data compiled by Bloomberg

Without tapping the Aliso Canyon site for supplies, plants may run out of gas, leading to short-term blackouts in Southern California for as many as two weeks, according to the report from the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Independent System Operator and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The agencies have proposed that utilities be able to draw from the billions of cubic feet in stock at the field when demand peaks this summer.

“The facility’s limited current operations create a distinct possibility of electric service interruptions in the coming summer months,” Mark Rothleder, vice president of state power-grid manager California Independent System Operator, said during a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

Hottest Days

Customers should be encouraged to conserve use on the hottest summer days, the agencies said. They also warned that gas shortfalls may extend into the winter, when the fuel is used to heat homes.
The leak from a broken well at Aliso Canyon, operated by Sempra’s Southern California Gas utility, lasted almost four months, sickening residents, forcing thousands to temporarily relocate and spewing the equivalent of a year’s worth of greenhouse-gas emissions from more than 500,000 cars. It was the biggest gas leak in U.S. history, according to a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of California at Davis and other partners.

Gas Injections

In response to the release, the state called for Sempra to stop gas injections at the site until a safety review of its wells could be performed, limiting the use of one of the largest reservoirs in the country.
The state agencies said in a statement Tuesday that they plan to address shortfalls with measures that will reduce “but not eliminate” the risk of gas shortages large enough to cause power service disruptions this summer.

They’ll take public comment before deciding on actions, which were spurred by an executive order issued by Governor Jerry Brown in January, Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the state energy commission, said in the call with reporters.

The plan recognized the "crucial role Aliso Canyon plays in providing reliable energy service to Southern California," Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for Southern California Gas, said in a statement. "We appreciate that the agencies responsible for developing the plan understand that the steps need to be taken to deal with our inability to rely on Aliso in the short term," he said.

An environmental group said the report instead underscores how dependent the state has become on natural gas and the need to identify other ways to satisfy its energy needs.

“It’s a short-term plan but we need a long-term solution,” said Tim O’Connor, director of the California oil and gas division at the Environmental Defense Fund.

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