By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Southern California Gas Co aims to partially restore operations at its crippled Aliso Canyon storage field by late summer, but the facility, scene of the worst-ever U.S. methane leak, will probably take a year to reopen fully, utility officials said on Thursday.
The time frame for bringing the facility back on line will unlikely be soon enough to avert natural gas shortages that could disrupt power generation across greater Los Angeles as warm-weather demand for electricity peaks, a top SoCal Gas executive said.
"I'm very concerned about the summer, as far as trying to provide gas service to help on that electrical reliability side," Chief Operating Officer Brett Lane told Reuters in a telephone interview.
State energy regulators warned on Tuesday that the region faced up to 14 days of blackouts this summer as gas-fired power plants are forced to largely do without supplies normally furnished by Aliso Canyon at times of peak demand.
Lane said he had no quibble with that analysis, adding that a residual supply of gas still held at Aliso Canyon could become harder to withdraw as many of the site's 114 individual wells are temporarily plugged for inspection.
The company on Thursday outlined its plan for continued testing of injection wells by the utility and state regulators, saying it hopes to "partially restore operations at the field by the end of the summer."
SoCal Gas, a division of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, remains barred from refilling the underground storage reservoir until the facility as a whole is deemed safe.
"As far as full normal operations, I think it's more likely a year from now, for getting to that point," Lane said.
His comments left in doubt how well the utility could expect to meet the needs of its core customers, homes and businesses that rely on natural gas for heating in winter.
Aliso Canyon, the fourth-largest gas reserve of its kind in the United States, has essentially been idled in the aftermath of a ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 97,000 tons of methane - the main component of natural gas - into the air.
The stench of odorized gas fumes from the leak, first detected Oct. 23, forced thousands from their homes in the nearby Los Angeles community of Porter Ranch, many complaining of headaches, respiratory problems, dizziness and nosebleeds. The leak was plugged in mid-February.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)