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NATURAL GAS BY THE ACRE : ALISO CANYON SERVES MILLIONS.

Byline: John Corrigan Daily News Staff Writer

Buried nearly 8,000 feet beneath the slopes of Oat Mountain in the north San Fernando Valley is a vast reservoir of natural gas - 70 billion cubic feet of it, enough to supply more than 1 million homes for a year.

The 3,200-acre site in Aliso Canyon was once home to oil fields. Today, the Southern California Gas Co. uses jet engine-powered compressors to inject gas deep into the played-out fields, where it is stored for later delivery to customers.

On the surface, the setting is one of classic California beauty - oak-dotted hillsides that are green in spring, golden-brown in summer. But it is the underground geology that makes Aliso Canyon a perfect natural gas tank.

``Basically, you've got a sponge up against a granite wall,'' said Tom Schroeder, a Gas Co. field engineer at Aliso.

The ``sponge'' is sandstone - porous rock that can store large quantities of oil and gas in the spaces between the grains of sand.

Using many of the same wells that once pumped oil, the Gas Co. uses powerful compressors to force natural gas back into the ground - where it rests in the sandstone, trapped on three sides by granite and the fourth side by underground water.

``Right now we're injecting gas,'' said Dick Wiegman, the storage operations manager at Aliso. ``We'll store the gas all summer in preparation for the winter months - basically from early November through mid-March.''

The gas is piped to the facility from Texas, Wyoming, Mexico and other sources. When the gas is pumped out in winter, it is odorized and then sent on its way to the Gas Co.'s nearly 5 million residential and commercial customers.

Fifty-eight employees work at the site in a round-the-clock operation, but few signs are visible from the Valley floor.

``We can operate without disturbing the neighbors,'' Wiegman said, looking over the steep slopes of his domain - which extends to nearly 3,000 feet above sea level to the top of Oat Mountain.

The quiet operation of the site was significantly disturbed only once in recent decades - on July 19, 1975. A fire broke out at one of the wellheads, sending up a plume of flame that burned for 10 days and could be seen at night across the Valley.

Red Adair, the Texan famed for fighting oil well fires, was brought in to extinguish the blaze. But before Adair could drill down to the shaft to pinch off the gas supply, the erosion of ground near the wellhead caused the fire to shift direction - allowing workers to use a shut-off valve at the surface.

The fire itself was caused in the process of extracting gas. Because the gas is under pressure, it comes up from below ground at high speed. Occasionally, particles of sand and other substances will come up with it.

Gas Co. officials theorized the fire was caused when sand deteriorated some of the wellhead fittings, allowing the gas to mix with air. At that point, the friction of the particulates hitting the wellhead fittings at high speed sparked the fire.

Wiegman and Schroeder counted off a series of steps that have been taken since 1975 to ensure the safety of the operation.

Chief among these are sensors that detect when sand or other particles are eroding the fittings. These sensors are designed to automatically shut down the flow of gas.

The gas itself, Wiegman notes, is not flammable unless it mixes with air.

The facility rode through the 1994 Northridge Quake without major incident.

``We were up and running in four days,'' Schroeder said. ``Most of that time was for inspection - it takes a long time to inspect 3,000 acres.''

The facility has a good record with regulators. A check of Public Utilities Commission inspections for the past five years showed no violations, while the South Coast Air Quality Management District said there were only two violations in recent years, both involving storage permits, that resulted in $300 in fines in 1991.

With a capacity of 70 billion cubic feet, Aliso Canyon is the Gas Co.'s main facility for Southern California. The company's four other Southland facilities - in Playa del Rey, Goleta, Montebello and Castaic - hold a combined 45 million cubic feet.

According to the Gas Co., Aliso ranks No. 1 in the nation in the amount of gas it can pump out of the ground in one day - 1.9 billion cubic feet.

On an average day, Gas Co. customers in Southern and Central California use about 2.5 billion cubic feet, according to Denise Day King, corporate communications manager for the Gas Co. King notes that much of the gas never goes underground, however, but is piped directly to homes and businesses after being transported cross-country.

Without underground storage capacity, gas would have to be stored above-ground in large tanks of the kind that once dotted urban landscapes. Few of these tanks remain locally, although the city of Long Beach - which has its own gas system - still has two such storage tanks.

Aliso is also one of the nation's largest storage fields - although the gas is not entirely for the Southland.

Some of the gas stored at Aliso is for other utilities. The Gas Co., for example, recently negotiated a deal to store gas for the agency supplying natural gas to British Columbia.

``It's almost like a public storage lot,'' Wiegman said. ``Some of it is for us, some of it is for others.''

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos, Drawing, Map

Photo: (1--color in VALLEY) Dick Wiegman,storage operations manager at the Southern California Gas Co. storage facility, shows a nearby well.

(2--BULLDOG only) Jim Maine rebuilds jet engines that force natural gas into the enormous underground cavity.

(3--BULLDOG only) Tom Schroeder, a field engineer at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, checks a fitting at one of the wellheads.

John McCoy/Daily News

Drawing: (color in VALLEY) UNDERGROUND STORAGE OF NATURAL GAS

Gregg Miller/Daily News

Map: Aliso Canyon gas storage facility
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 16, 1996
Words:1005
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