The ruling paves the way for Gas Co. to restart operations at Aliso Canyon, which was closed down following a catastrophic leak.
Los Angeles County lost its bid Friday for a court order blocking the re-start of natural gas injections at the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch, the site of the largest methane leak in U.S. history.
State regulators announced last week that injections could resume in a limited fashion, primarily to prevent electrical supply shortages in Southern California. But county officials objected, saying the facility should not reopen until a study is completed on the cause of the 2015-16 gas leak. They also argued that further study is needed on the possible damage a large earthquake could cause to the storage field.
The county asked for a temporary restraining order blocking the resumption of gas injections, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. ruled that he did not have the authority to "interfere" in the operation of a facility governed by the California Public Utilities Commission.
"The commission's order is `inject.' The county's demand is `do not inject,"' Wiley said in a written order. "Doing both is impossible. The conflict is direct."
Attorneys for the county said they are not giving up the fight and will go to a state appellate court in hopes of obtaining an emergency order blocking the re-start.
According to the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the investigation into the cause of the leak is continuing. Regardless of that study, the agencies last week cleared the way for the Southern California Gas Co. to resume injections of natural gas to store at the facility.
"In order to protect public safety and the environment, this facility will be held to the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation and will store only the minimum gas necessary to supply the Los Angeles area," said Ken Harris, DOGGR oil and gas supervisor. "The extensive testing, retrofits and new safety measures ensure the wells are in sound operating condition today."
CPUC Executive Director Timothy Sullivan said the facility will be restricted to about 28 percent of its 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 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.
"Aliso Canyon is an important part of Southern California's energy system, supporting the reliability of natural gas and electricity services for millions of people," according to the Gas Co. "SoCalGas has met -- and in many cases, exceeded -- the rigorous requirements of the state's comprehensive safety review."
It was not immediately clear when gas injections were expected to resume. SoCalGas officials said they were more than halfway through the process of meeting requirements for re-starting injections.
"Once those steps are completed, we will begin injection operations to support the reliability of our natural gas and electricity systems," SoCalGas spokesman Chris Gilbride said.
Once the operations resume, the facility "will be held to what state regulators have called the most rigorous monitoring, inspection and safety requirements in the nation," he said.
The Aliso Canyon storage facility has been largely out of use since the four-month leak spewed about 109,000 metric tons of methane into the air and led to the temporary relocation of about 7,000 Porter Ranch-area residents. The leak began in October 2015 and was capped in February 2016.
But despite the seal of approval from the CPUC and the DOGGR, James Mansdorfer, who was formerly responsible for managing SoCalGas' storage wells and reservoirs, told DOGGR he was concerned that movement on the Santa Susana fault would damage the casing and tubing of every well at the site, resulting in a far worse leak than the one of 2015-16, according to court papers.
In court papers filed Monday, attorneys for the county argued that Aliso Canyon "cannot withstand" a major earthquake, and there is a 60 percent to 80 percent chance of such a temblor occurring in the Aliso Canyon area over the next 50 years.
Since 2006, there have been over 100 earthquakes in the Aliso Canyon area, with 16 ranging from 2.0 to 4.7 in magnitude, according to the Daily News.
SoCalGas officials said Mansdorfer's concerns were "carefully considered" by state regulators before they decided the facility is safe to resume limited operations.
"While we do not agree with the former employee's position, safety concerns raised by current or former employees are taken seriously," according to SoCalGas. "For that reason, when this employee informed us of his concerns last year, we shared that information with the state regulators."
Claims being made by attorneys for the county in hopes of preventing renewed operations at Aliso Canyon are "baseless and wrong," according to SoCalGas. "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."
County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, however, said she will continue pushing to prevent the facility from re-starting.
"The county's first priority is to protect the health and safety of the residents of Porter Ranch and the northwest San Fernando Valley," Barger said. "I believe that allowing Aliso Canyon to begin reinjecting puts the residents in a potentially unsafe environment."