SAN FRANCISCO In an impressive display of David besting Goliath, a group of Sacramento residents succeeded Thursday in blocking a $70 million plan to store 7.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas beneath their working class neighborhood.
The California Public Utilities Commission, in a 3-2 vote, rejected the plan by Sacramento Natural Gas Storage LLC to store the gas 3,800 feet below the Avondale/Glen Elder neighborhood in southeast Sacramento.
It was a post-San Bruno moment. That Sept. 10, 2010, explosion of a 30-inch gas transmission line killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. And it redefined how three PUC commissioners weighed this project.
"Do I think it's likely there would be a problem? No," declared PUC Commissioner Michel Peter Florio shortly before his vote to reject. "But as we've seen in many recent events things do happen that we don't expect.
"In this instance, I think it's simply a risk too big to take, given the marginal need for this facility."
Following the San Bruno explosion, Florio has said, the PUC "renewed and strengthened" its commitment to safety.
When Thursday's hearing ended, 30 opponents of the project walked out of the PUC headquarters in San Francisco, posed for pictures and cheered loudly.
"I don't even think I believe it yet," said Constance Slider Pierre, who was pivotal in rallying opponents in the neighborhood.
"This has been five-plus years in the making and it has been an incredible battle, one of the biggest of my personal life and of this community's existence," she said.
Don Russell, president of Sacramento Natural Gas Storage, called the PUC decision "an extreme disappointment."
In touting the project, the company said it would create jobs, boost the economy and ensure a stable and reliable supply of natural gas. SMUD had signed a 20-year contract for a portion of the storage capacity.
On Thursday night, Russell said the company will decide whether to seek a rehearing.
"We wouldn't have stayed after this for so long if we didn't think it wasn't something that Sacramento really needed," Russell said.
He said it is striking that the three new commissioners "are very gun-shy of having anything to do with natural gas after San Bruno."
"Now that we're scared of natural gas, what does that do to the state for the next 20 years? It's the bridge to renewable energy," Russell said. "If you back off that, it's tough on the economy and the whole green energy movement."
The project would have entailed pumping natural gas into an underground sandstone formation. The site is a naturally occurring reservoir beneath 379 acres of land. It once held natural gas, but that was extracted by several companies until 1987, when the supply was depleted.
Commission President Michael R. Peevey and Commissioner Timothy Alan Simon supported the project. They said they would file dissenting opinions.
Florio, in voting against the project, was joined by commissioners Catherine J.K. Sandoval and Mark J. Ferron. Ferron last month called the San Bruno explosion "a game changer."
This time, he outlined his decision to reject: "While the project no doubt would provide added flexibility and reliability for natural gas," Ferron said, "it is clearly not essential."
Sandoval, a former Sacramento resident, cast the deciding vote.
Her family once lived near a retired underground oil field in Montebello, Los Angeles County. The field was transformed into a natural gas storage site in 1956 and later had substantial leaks.
On Thursday, she cited a list of other underground natural gas storage sites in California, noting that none was so intensively populated as the Sacramento project site.
Slider, 41, said her effort on behalf of the Avondale/Glen Elder Neighborhood Association has changed her life.
She moved into the neighborhood into her late father's house nearly a decade ago. Though she later moved out of the neighborhood she remained instrumental in rallying residents, finding legal support and connecting with local elected officials to raise the group's profile.
Councilman Kevin McCarty, who represents the community, didn't take a position on the project. However, Slider said, McCarty was a go-between for residents and the gas storage company.
"I'm sure they (residents) are relieved to get this behind them," McCarty said. "It seemed like a David vs. Goliath battle at times with local neighborhood folks trying to make sure their voices were heard."
Slider said the association initially felt outmatched. She turned to Colin Bailey, staff attorney for Legal Services of Northern California. He signed on for what turned out to be five years of work on behalf of the neighborhood association.
Bailey, in turn, reached out to Christopher J. Butcher of the Thomas Law Group in Sacramento. About 18 months ago, attorney Kara Ueda joined the pro bono effort.
In the early years, Slider said, the aim was to obtain the best "benefits package" Sacramento Natural Gas Storage was willing to offer. That effort was contingent upon a showing that the project would be safe for residents.
Before the question could be answered, she said, the company began canvassing property owners in pursuit of signed leases authorizing gas storage beneath properties. Owners of 760 homes in the area were offered $500 signing bonuses. A majority of the owners signed up.
Slider said documents ultimately showed there were risks of fire and explosion, although remote. But the risks could not be fully mitigated.
"They really forced our hand," she said of the company's lease campaign. "We had to oppose it before we had gone through the vetting process.
"Lo and behold, it was the right move."