A state appeals court justice late Friday temporarily blocked Southern California Gas Co.'s plans to resume injecting natural gas into the Aliso Canyon storage facility, granting a request from Los Angeles County to delay the reopening.
Earlier Friday, a Superior Court judge rejected the county's bid, said he did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
"Regulating Aliso injections is the prerogative of the Public Utilities Commission," Judge John Wiley said in his order. "Under these circumstances, this court may not act."
The county was seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the reopening of the facility, which spewed more than 100,000 tons of methane gas in a leak from October 2015 to February 2016.
Citing concerns that Southern California Gas Co. could resume injections as soon as Saturday, county attorneys filed an appeal Friday afternoon.
Associate Justice Lamar Baker of the 2nd District Court of Appeal gave Southern California Gas Co. and state oil and gas officials until 6 p.m. Saturday to file motions opposing the temporary stay.
After that, he said he would decide on the fate of the restraining order.
State officials announced last week that Aliso Canyon would be allowed to reopen at a reduced capacity. They said new safety protocols had been implemented and that reopening the facility would increase the reliability of the energy system in Southern California.
L.A. County sued state regulators and Southern California Gas Co. in March, saying they had failed to complete a "comprehensive safety assessment" and environmental impact review. The state also violated the Public Records Act by not handing over documents related to its analyses, the suit alleged.
County lawyers amended their lawsuit on July 21 to request an immediate stay of the decision to reopen the facility until the rest of the lawsuit is decided.
The amended lawsuit also included comments from a former Southern California Gas Co. storage engineer, James Mansdorfer, who warned of the potentially "catastrophic" earthquake risk posed by the Santa Susana fault running underneath the Aliso Canyon wells.
"My concern is that movement on the fault would almost surely sever the casing (and tubing) of every well, resulting in release of gas at a rate of 100 to 1,000 times the rate" of the 2015 leak, he wrote.
Mansdorfer recommended that the company install subsurface safety valves, which he said would prevent the loss of gas if the fault were to move. However, he noted such movement was a "low probability" event and said the valves could be installed while the field was returned to service.
This week Mansdorfer further clarified, writing in supplemental comments: "I believe that allowing injection of gas to a limited pressure while the geologic risk analysis is being performed is appropriate. ...The limited pressure being allowed by [state oil and gas regulators] does not substantially increase the risk."
During Friday's Superior Court hearing, Louis R. Miller, one of the private attorneys representing the county, made a plea to the state.
"Complete the plan that's in place," he said. "Make these people in Porter Ranch as safe as we can."
Speaking on behalf of the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates private utilities like Aliso Canyon, attorney Mitchell Shapson said the commission has full authority to issue temporary restraining orders, if it so desires. "The right place for the county to go to is the PUC," Shapson said.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Miller said that was an empty invitation. "They've already approved it," he said.
Activists who attended the hearing — wearing red T-shirts with the words "Shut. It. All. Down" — were confused and angry about the decision.
"Why are we here?" asked Helen Attai, a Porter Ranch resident. "Didn't the judge already know he didn't have jurisdiction?"
Deirdre Bolona, who lives a few streets south of the field's edge, said, "This is a slap in the face of the citizens of the San Fernando Valley — and beyond."
"I want them to complete the things they were ordered to do," she added.
State Oil and Gas Supervisor Ken Harris ordered Southern California Gas Co. to conduct a leak survey of the facility and survey of background methane emissions in the area before resuming injections. According to a checklist on the company's website, the latter has not yet taken place.
Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for Southern California Gas Co., said in a statement the company is "working diligently to complete the steps necessary to begin injections," but he did not provide a timeline.
After the stay was granted, Gilbride said in an emailed statement: "Unnecessary delays will challenge our ability to meet" the state's directive to maintain natural gas supplies.
7 p.m.: This article was updated with an appeals court granting the county's request for an immediate stay.