PHMSA hints at new rules for gas storage industry

By Mike Lee | 02/03/2016 09:15 AM EST

Federal pipeline regulators told the gas storage industry yesterday to inspect its operations and fix any problems in an effort to prevent leaks like the one at Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon facility that has forced the evacuation of 4,400 families from Los Angeles.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also said it may write new regulations for gas storage facilities, citing previous underground leaks that led to fires and explosions.

PHMSA has been considering an upgrade to its gas storage regulations since 2011, and California’s two U.S. senators are planning an amendment to the energy bill that would address the Aliso Canyon incident (E&E Daily, Feb. 1).


The Aliso Canyon facility is an old oil field spread over 3,600 acres that has been converted to store gas underground. The leak is in the casing of an old oil well that was drilled in 1953 and was converted in 1972 to inject gas. About 91,000 tons of methane has spewed into the air, according to an estimate from the Environmental Defense Fund, enough to impede California’s plans to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

It could take several more weeks to seal the leak.

PHMSA told operators in an advisory notice to check for leaks in wellheads and pipelines, verify that shutoff valves and other safety equipment are in working order and make sure that the pressure used to force gas underground doesn’t exceed the design limits of the underground reservoir or the associated equipment.

There have been at least two accidents involving similar storage operations since 2000. A storage field run by Kansas Gas Service had a wellbore leak in 2001; the gas migrated 9 miles underground and reached the surface through old brine wells. The leak sparked an explosion in downtown Hutchinson, Kan., that destroyed two businesses and killed two people.

In 2004, a well blew out at the Moss Bluff storage facility in Liberty County, Texas. No one was injured, but the gas burned for seven days.

Any new regulations that PHMSA writes would apply to federally regulated storage facilities — those that are associated with interstate pipelines. They would become the nationwide standard, though, and states would have to meet or exceed the federal rules.

Aliso Canyon, which is owned by a utility company, is considered purely intrastate. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has ordered state regulators to write emergency rules addressing underground gas storage (ClimateWire, Jan. 7).

Separately, California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) yesterday sued SoCalGas, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, seeking damages and an immediate halt to the leak (E&ENews PM, Feb. 2).

The American Petroleum Institute argued against new regulations, saying it recently wrote new voluntary standards for gas-storage operators.

"The American people expect government and industry to work together towards common goals. It is these types of actions, not regulatory overreach, that serve the best interest of safety and economic growth," API midstream group director Robin Rorick said in a statement.