Protesters call for immediate shutdown of Porter Ranch gas field

Los Angeles Daily News
By Dana Bartholomew

With escalating urgency due to illnesses they link to a natural gas leak above Porter Ranch, hundreds of protesters Saturday demanded closure of the gas field and a shift to renewable energy to help thwart global warming.

As nearly 200 nations reached a landmark consensus on climate change outside Paris, residents from across Los Angeles converged on the Aliso Canyon Storage Facility to make the demands.

The so-called Draw a Red Line Against SoCal Gas protest in Porter Ranch drew an estimated 300 red-clad protesters who walked a picket line in front of the gas field gate near the top of Tampa Avenue.

• Video: Porter Ranch residents protest SoCalGas due to gas leak

The Southern California Gas Co. field has spewed natural gas since Oct. 23, with growing calls for action by local, state and federal officials, environmental regulators and public health officers.

“I’m a little pissed — I’m furious,” said Jean-Paul DeMars, a film editor, as he stood next to his wife, Vivian, wearing a gas mask. They live catty-cornered from the protest at the junction of Sesnon Boulevard. “I have four kids; they’re sick. The little one, 2 years old, the night before last was vomiting all night long. My 4-year-old, same thing two weeks before. All complain of headaches, including me and my wife. My dog’s got a rash.

“I want this fixed.”

The protest, organized by Save Porter Ranch and environmental groups such as Food & Water Watch and San Fernando Valley 350.org, also urged local officials to direct the Department of Water and Power to transition from natural gas to 100 percent clean energy in 20 years.

It followed a Friday rally by parents calling upon the Los Angeles Unified School District to relocate two Porter Ranch elementary schools located just over a mile from the leaking well. More than 3,600 residents have left their homes or are now relocating to escape gas odors on the eve of the Christmas holiday.

• Photos: Protest against SoCalGas in Porter Ranch over gas leak

Saturday’s protest also followed a lawsuit by the city of Los Angeles, as well as the first individual complaint in what could be a flood of litigation against SoCalGas and its parent company, Sempra Energy.

But shutting down a natural gas field critical to fueling 14 power plants across the region and 21 million homes and businesses across Southern California is not an immediate option, gas company officials say.

“The loss of Aliso Canyon could have a direct affect on electric grid reliability,” said Javier Mendoza, a spokesman for SoCal Gas. “Electric generators served by Aliso Canyon would be subject to natural gas curtailments, which in turn could lead to electricity blackouts. And even (with) the increased availability of renewables, a large portion of electricity consumed by Southern California are still produced by power plants fueled by natural gas.

“Without Aliso Canyon, we would need to build extensive new natural gas pipelines and compression facilities at a cost of $2 billion,” he said. The permit process and construction could take between seven and 10 years.

Public health officials, meanwhile, say prolonged exposure to trace chemicals in natural gas leaking in the Santa Susana mountains north of Porter Ranch can cause long-term health effects. They also say levels found to date were not believed to pose a long-term risk.

Mercaptan, a gas additive that smells like rotten eggs to make it detectable, has been blamed for hundreds of complaints of headaches, nosebleeds, stomachaches, rashes and respiratory illness.

As a cold breeze blew off Oat Mountain, where Gas Co. workers struggled to plug a leak that could stretch through spring, protesters carried such signs as “Turn off fossil fuels and turn on renewables,” “Don’t ruin our air save Porter Ranch” and “Protect our kids.”

• Video: Residents join environmental activists in Porter Ranch calling for a shutdown of gas field

“This is what climate change looks like,” Walker Foley, a Southern California organizer for Food & Water Watch, a Los Angeles-based environmental group, told protesters. “People being relocated from their homes. People have rashes. People have nosebleeds. While gas company officials stay comfortable in their homes.

“It is unacceptable from start to finish,” he said. “How many people want it shut down?”

“Now,” bellowed the crowd.

“Shut it down now means we won’t rest until we have a conversation,” Foley replied. “We say, ‘Shut this monstrosity down now.’ ”

Gas company officials said late Friday they have been making progress in stopping the gas leak. The first phase in drilling a relief well is nearly finished; it will meet the leaking well a mile and a half beneath the mountain. When that’s done, they say they plan to pump heavy mud and fluids into the well to stop the flow of gas from the vast storage reservoir. They will then seal the bottom of the well with cement.

The drilling continues around the clock and is expected to take three to four months.

The 3,600 acre Aliso Canyon Storage Facility, the largest of four company underground reservoirs inside depleted oil fields, stores natural gas bought throughout the year from producers from West Texas to the West Coast. The other storage fields lie beneath Castaic, Playa del Rey, and Goleta in Santa Barbara County.

The Aliso field holds enough gas to supply Southern California for more than a month. The long-term storage, according to Mendoza, helps protect a reliable natural gas supply and bolster customers against price spikes.

“If Aliso Canyon is shut down,” he said, “our customers served there would be at substantial risk of curtailment of service during heat waves, when there’s high demand for electric load generation, (and) during cold spells, when there’s a high residential demand.”

“So Aliso Canyon is a direct source of supply for a large number of gas-fired power plants. It is a critical storage facility that Southern Californians depend on for their natural gas service and for their electricity.”

The Aliso Canyon field stores roughly 80 billion cubic feet of natural gas that is pumped into roughly 115 wells for 210 days a year, injecting natural gas into the reservoir in summer, when costs are lower, and extracting it in winter when there is more demand and costs are higher, according to Maria D’Orsogna, a Cal State Northridge professor with the Institute of Sustainability.

Most of the gas comes from fracking operations in the Midwest, she said, a nonrenewable resource she said contributes to global climate change.

It also potentially fuels one-third of the 280 billion cubic feet of natural gas consumed in Los Angeles County last year, she said, or 4 percent burned throughout the state.

She said it was time Los Angeles galvanized around the Aliso Canyon gas leak and worked to abandon its fossil fuel economy. And it could start, she said, by installing solar rooftops across the nation’s second largest city.

“Now I believe the proper question to ask is not necessarily how important Aliso is to the natural gas supply to the people of Los Angeles,” said D’Orsogna, who once led a fight against oil drilling in rural Italy, in an email. “Rather, how important is human health and our environment to the people of Los Angeles?”