Moratorium on Aliso Canyon natural gas operations gets Senate approval

Lawmakers moved Thursday to ban the injection of new gas into 1950s-era wells in Aliso Canyon until experts certify the operations are safe.

In the wake of a leak at the site that has forced some 3,000 Porter Ranch families from their homes, state officials placed a moratorium on Southern California Gas Co.’s operations.

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The state Senate bill would put that moratorium into law and stop the withdrawal of gas at 18 wells similar to the one that is leaking. Operations would be allowed to resume when the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources determines them to be safe. The measure now goes to the Assembly for consideration.

“It’s very important as the weeks wind down and the leak is eventually stopped that we have in place some safeguards so these 3,000 families will consider moving back into their homes,” Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) told her colleagues. “They want to know that those … older wells, similar to this one, have been inspected and are safe.”

Pavley said many families “are frankly scared to death of going back home.”

The legislation proposes that if other wells are found to be unsafe, they should be shut down and state officials should examine the feasibility of reducing or ending operations in Aliso Canyon.

The bill won bipartisan support in the Senate, with Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) calling the Aliso Canyon leak a “public disaster. The uncontrolled leak of natural gas creates an emergency by anyone’s definition.”

Rodger R. Schwecke, a vice president for the gas company, told lawmakers that the company already had decided to plug 18 older wells with characteristics similar to the leaking one until they were inspected.

“We do not plan to inject any gas into Aliso Canyon until it is safe to do so,” he said. He estimated that work on a relief well to stop the leak should be completed by mid- to late February.

Lawmakers on Thursday also called for hearings on the slow response to the leak. Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) accused state regulatory agencies of showing “undue deference” to “naked utility assurances” in not ordering a moratorium earlier.

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