S. E. Williams
California’s Newest Gas Pipeline
On Thursday, May 26 the California Public Utilities Commission delayed its vote on the North-South project, a natural gas pipeline that would originate in Adelanto and run 65 miles through San Bernardino County to Moreno Valley.
Previously rejected by the Commission and once again delayed, the pipeline project is fighting an uphill battle for acceptance by the community and approval by the Commission.
The proposed project will impact communities in both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties including the cities of Adelanto, Victorville, Highland, San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda, and Moreno Valley. In addition, the pipeline will run through the San Bernardino National Forest for about 12 miles.
When one California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) commissioner requested more time to review the proposal on May 26, it was actually the second time in many months the CPUC failed to reach the decision hoped for by the utility companies. The project has a price tag of $855 million and the companies seek a rate increase of $629 million to help cover costs. It is expected to take approximately 36 months to construct.
Gas company officials have claimed the project is needed to meet the needs of the community. However, at the May meeting at least one commissioner argued the companies had failed to prove the need. In the meantime, many local residents continue to oppose it.
In a recent interview, Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) Spokesperson Melissa Bailey explained from the gas companies’ perspective why this project is important and why it’s important to do now.
According to Bailey, “Homes, businesses and power plants in the high-growth areas of San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties rely primarily on deliveries from just one natural gas pipeline to the east and are vulnerable to reliability issues. The North-South Project would provide access to receipt points and storage to the north in the event that gas supply from the east is insufficient.”
SoCalGas believes that new infrastructure is the best and most cost-effective way to address these vulnerabilities for the long term. “In our view,” Bailey added, “A solution is even more crucial given the growing interdependence between natural gas and electric generation.” Natural gas fuels nearly 50 percent of the electric generation in California and currently the electric system depends on a reliable natural gas system. “With the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, energy demand in Southern California must be met by new electric power sources that depend on a reliable, abundant supply of natural gas.”
But, with the country moving toward more environmentally friendly and renewable sources of energy why would rate payers want to invest $629 million in this project particularly since a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed the drilling and extraction of natural gas from wells and its transportation in pipelines results in the leakage of methane which is a far more potent global warming gas than CO2? According to Bailey however, natural gas continues to be a fuel of choice even as the use of renewable energy increases. This is because as Bailey explained, “It is clean, safe, and affordable; and because it complements renewables.”
“Natural gas is there whenever the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing,” she added. “It will help grow the effective use of renewable energy and will help us achieve even more energy efficiency in our homes, businesses and factories.” Bailey also touched on the issue of climate change in relation to meeting long-term climate goals. “We’ll meet those goals faster and more cost-effectively by making sure that natural gas is also part of a portfolio of solutions.”
Beyond the issues related to global warming however, there are also major safety considerations that could put communities along the pipeline at risk. Beyond obvious concerns over the potential for leaks after an earthquake that the utilities have pledged to mitigate; according to an investigative report by the Wall Street Journal between 2010 and 2013, there were a total of 1,400 pipeline spills and accidents in the United States. Even more concerning according to the report, is the fact that 4 of every 5 pipeline accidents were discovered by local residents—not the companies who owned the pipelines.
Bailey was asked what monitoring/safety measures will be deployed by the gas companies to mitigate this concern, and whether and how residents in communities along the pipeline’s route would be taught what danger signs to watch for and how to how to report it.
The pipeline would be constructed with modern safety features, Bailey offered. “It will have fiber-optic cable so it can be continuously monitored for ‘dig-ins’. It will have monitoring devices that allow us to watch for leaks remotely in real-time. Bright yellow meshing would be installed above the pipeline to prevent damage due to digging projects.” In addition, she added, the pipeline would be reassessed for integrity with an internal inspection every 7 years.
All of the real-time protections will be in addition to the initial design and construction of the pipeline, which would include the following safety elements: 42-inch minimum soil cover or greater wherever feasible; automatic shut-off valves located at shorter intervals than required; the pipe would be protected from corrosion and subjected to rigorous testing at high pressure before being placed into operation.
Bailey agreed that education is important in keeping customers safe. “SoCalGas will continue to work hard to educate all Southern California residents about danger signs to watch for and how to report danger signs or suspected leaks. We do this through many programs, including the educational information on our website socalgas. com/stay-safe/safety-and-prevention.”
Bailey was also asked about the CPUC’s most recent delay of its decision regarding the pipeline and what a path forward would be for the gas companies if the rate increase requested to fund the project was ultimately denied by the Commission.
“SoCalGas has been delivering clean, safe and reliable natural gas to our customers for nearly 150 years and we will continue to serve our 21.6 million consumers in Southern California. Further we will continue to proactively propose infrastructure improvements and other solutions to make sure all of our customers continue to have reliable energy.”
The fate of the pipeline still appears tenuous. In a July 2014 letter to the Southern California Gas Company in response to the project’s environmental impact report, the CPUC advised more information and analysis was needed for alternatives to the project, “including the option for ‘no project.’”
In April 2015, the CPUC issued a Second Formal Request to Southern California Gas Company regarding what it identified as ‘Deficiency Items for the North-South Pipeline Project’. First on the list was the statement, “More analysis is needed for the alternatives, including the no project alternative. Please note, 'the discussion of alternatives shall include alternatives capable of substantially reducing or eliminating any significant environmental effects, even if these alternatives substantially impede the attainment of the project objectives, and are costlier.'”
The utilities have primarily hinged their argument on need, an argument that has so far failed to convenience commissioners. Many community members are opposed to the project for a number of reasons mostly related to the potential disruption to traffic patterns and local businesses during the construction period. Citizens are hopeful the CPUC will ultimately reject the project.