Residents Clash With SoCal Gas Over Unwanted Pipeline

As residents in the city of San Bernardino find themselves caught up in a classic social dilemma which pits community opposition against a company that maintains it must undertake an energy infrastructure project to meet both growing demand and governmental mandates, those residents have in the last fortnight obtained a heartening ruling from an administrative law judge and have what appears to be favorable support from a majority of the California Public Utility Commission members.
But the battle is not over and the upper hand the residents took in this most recent skirmish will yet be subject to countervailing considerations down the road.
For well over a half century, Pacific Gas & Electric, which serves large portions of Northern California, has utilized a pressurized line to import natural gas drawn out of the oil fields of west Texas across New Mexico, Arizona, the Colorado River, a major portion of the Mojave Desert and then northward toward San Francisco. In California, two other large energy companies, Southern California Gas, and Enova Corporation, the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric, were also well established. In 1998 Southern California Gas and Enova Corporation merged, forming Sempra Energy.
Sempra now has a proposal to construct a natural gas pipeline system into California originating at Needles on the Colorado River. The pipeline would run from Needles to Adelanto at which would be located another pressurization station, and from there 65 miles southward to Moreno Valley and a pressurization station there, which would give the natural gas its final push to San Diego. It is a portion of that 65-mile stretch from Adelanto to Moreno Valley, much of it paralleling and closely proximate to the 15 Freeway, down Cajon Pass and then east along the 215 Freeway and then through the city of San Bernardino to Reche Canyon and over the hills to Moreno Valley that has so people agitated.
Sempra – Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric – are undertaking a two-tracked effort, seeking rate increases to pay for the project, which is projected to cost $621.3 million, and obtain clearance to construct the project, consisting of a 3-foot-diameter pipeline traversing close to 350 miles. Sempra asserts the pipeline is needed to secure a reliable source of additional natural gas for its customer base and that natural gas is a clean energy source. It is being pushed, Sempra says, by the State of California to have a reliable supply of natural gas on hand. The expansive region Sempra serves is currently reliant on a single natural gas supplier and one mishap, disaster or other problem could cut the supply off, the company maintains.
“SoCalGas believes this new infrastructure is the best and most cost-effective way to address this,” a company spokesman maintains. In its application for a permit to complete the pipeline system, Sempra said it has “an obligation to provide safe, reliable service to all of our customers.”
As part of the California Public Utilities Commission’s deliberative process, elements outside of San Bernardino rallied against the project, based less on objections to the impact on the area through which the pipeline would pass than on the cost of the undertaking and the resulting impact on ratepayers.
Karl J. Bemesderfer, the administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission hearing the matter rejected the bulk of SoCal/Sempra’s arguments, ruling in favor of customer groups and ratepayer advocates who said less-costly solutions, including baseload contracts and tighter balancing requirements could bolster gas supply on the southern system.
Sempra had posited an argument that as Mexico increases its use of natural gas there will be a concomitant reduction in gas availability for consumers and power plants in California’s Inland Empire, Imperial Valley and San Diego County.
Bemesderfer was basically unmoved by that claim, saying that three competing pipeline projects covering different routes but eventually terminating in San Diego could meet future demand requirements at a lower cost. He also said those other routes would entail fewer safety risks than SoCal’s North-South Project.
SoCal’s strongest argument for construction of the pipeline “is that it ensures against such disruptions of supplies coming into California via the El Paso Natural Gas (EPNG) pipeline at Blythe,” the judge said. “But even if we accept that argument, it is clear from the record that the alternative physical solutions proposed by TransCanada, Transwestern and EPNG all provide redundant pipeline capacity at a significantly lower cost than the North-South pipeline.”
Last week the California Public Utilities Commission took up the issue. Ultimately, the commissioners postponed their decision, though indicating during the discussion that they were leaning against the project. Commissioner Mike Florio, who has been under fire for what many consider to be improper ties to utility companies, voiced the strongest opposition, calling the project “unjustified.”
No decision was made and the issue will be revisited at the commission’s May 26 hearings. The delay came about due to a request of commission president Michael Picker that the commission’s vote to deny the project permit be done without prejudice, allowing the project to be resubmitted at a future date.
A number of San Bernardino residents, who had somewhat belatedly and with less coordination and organization than the advocates for ratepayers protested the project, were encouraged by both Bernesdorfer’s ruling and the commission’s generally expressed sentiments against the project.
Still the same, much of the local protest dwelt on issues of less than primary consideration for the commission. A major irritant for residents is the disruption the project will entail during the construction phase. The project will involve the dredging of an 8-foot trench which will entail a 50-foot right-of-way. Over the year-to-year-and-a-half life of the project, some streets and boulevards will experience lane closures that will result in traffic jam. There is particular concern this will interrupt operations at Cal State San Bernardino and that it could wreak havoc on already struggling retail operations across town. There is also worry that in pushing to complete the project, Sempra may grow coercive, using eminent domain to force landowners to sell their property deemed needed to complete the project.
Simultaneously, however, what is playing out in San Bernardino is a demonstration of how a small percentage of the population that is strategically located can block or delay infrastructure siting projects that are critical to larger community and regional goals through what those with a pro-development orientation derisively refer to as the “not-in-my-backyard or NIMBY phenomenon,” or what is less abrasively described as “reaction to a locally unwanted land-use (LULU).”
While energy and other types of infrastructure projects are often socially needed in a larger context, often they are unwanted by the community in which they are proposed to be sited. Equal participation in the governmental process thus requires that local quality-of life-concerns and community opposition be addressed, even as the balancing of those concerns against development intent can lead to legal battles, civil conflict, and long delays in getting the projects approved and constructed, together with increased cost of the product ultimately delivered to consumers.

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