Aliso Canyon may expand again, despite plan to shut it down


People living in and near Porter Ranch protest the proposed expansion of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. Eight years ago, the community was evacuated for months after an historic gas leak at the site. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

California officials will decide on Thursday whether to allow SoCalGas to store more methane at its Aliso Canyon facility in Porter Ranch, the site of the largest methane leak in U.S. history. Outraged neighbors have held rallies, organized local elected officials, and begged state utility commissioners to say no.

They argue any expansion runs contrary to an existing plan to close it.

“Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown both said this place needs to be expedited, shut it down. And now SoCalGas wants to increase the gas. And the [California Public Utilities Commission] wants to increase the gas,” says Save Porter Ranch Co-founder Matt Pakucko. “What part of shut it down don't they understand?”

In 2015, a pipe at Aliso Canyon leaked more than 100,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of nearly four months. After that, the state limited the amount of gas SoCalGas can store at the facility.

Yet in 2020 and 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) agreed to expand the capacity of the facility. Thursday’s decision would expand its capacity again, now to the highest allowable limit set by the California Energy Management Division.

Another neighborhood rally

Matt Pakucko (left) says he is proud of the turnout but disappointed by the circumstances that warranted rallying his neighbors. Photo by Caleigh Wells

Last week roughly 100 people rallied on a busy corner in Porter Ranch, where some expressed a sense of deja vu.

“Seven years later, we're still standing on the street corner, because that place is still open and it's still contaminating the residents,” said Pakucko, who wore the same bright red shirt as fellow activists. The shirt was printed with the words, “Shut. It. All. Down.”

A speaker read off a long list of people living nearby who died of cancer. Residents here compare health symptoms that aren’t proven to be related to Aliso Canyon, but they feel certain are: sick and dead pets, nosebleeds, rashes, headaches, blurry eyes, coughs, and mental fog, to name a few.

A young resident carries his homemade sign to a rally protesting the expansion of the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

After the historic leak forced residents to flee their homes for months, there seemed to be official support to stop storing gas inside the hilltop where they live. Then-Governor Jerry Brown called to shut down the facility by 2017, and when Gavin Newsom succeeded him, he also supported the idea.

California Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo, who represents Porter Ranch, still supports closure: “It does really feel like it is taking it in the wrong direction if we're going to increase reliance on this facility that has been so problematic in terms of health and safety concerns.” 

Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo says she is not convinced by the arguments SoCalGas has made to expand its storage facility. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

The case for expansion

SoCalGas would not agree to an interview with KCRW, nor would their parent company Sempra, or the Western States Petroleum Association, or a similar state trade group. 

But a SoCalGas spokesperson did provide a statement that reads in part, “The CPUC’s proposal to increase local natural gas storage levels ahead of winter is a prudent step that would help advance our shared goal of maintaining energy reliability at just and reasonable rates.”

Iraj Ershagi, who directs the petroleum engineering program at USC, says he understands the reasoning for storing more gas there now.

“You can’t have it both ways … keep the energy level prices low, and yet oppose increasing the capacity,” he says. Plus, he adds, when demand goes up and clean energy sources go down, California needs gas. “Otherwise, we're going to have blackouts, brownouts, because they're not going to have power.” 

This concern over energy security is partly why state officials have approved capacity increases at the facility multiple times since the 2015 leak. But Porter Ranch residents point out that when the capacity was lower, ratepayers did not experience blackouts.

“Did anything happen? No. All of a sudden we have a solution in search of a problem,” says environmental engineer and former Porter Ranch neighborhood council president Issam Najm. “Baloney.”

Plus, there’s not necessarily a connection between more storage and stable gas prices, says Schiavo, who also sits on the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy. Her committee had a hearing on why last winter’s gas prices were so high, and she wasn’t satisfied with SoCalGas’s answers.

“They came in and they said, ‘Well, we did everything right. We filled up our storage, we bought in the summer when it was cheapest, we were in a really good position,’” Schiavo says. “And I said, ‘If you did everything right, then why was it a problem? Didn’t you have more storage you could’ve drawn down on, instead of buying at the highest possible price that we’ve ever seen in history?’” 

Losing hope

None of this is likely to persuade members of the California Public Utilities Commission, which keeps voting to expand capacity instead of moving towards closing the facility. And that’s really discouraging to residents living nearby.

“I've seen so many bad things. I'm disappointed, and it's difficult to have hopes,” says Aliso Moms Alliance co-founder Helen Attai. “Nobody else is listening to us. I have tried everything. … That's really heartbreaking.”