Groups join fight against SDG&E natural gas pipeline project along I-15

The 50-mile project has already started, will cost $677 million and take four years to complete

Crews have already started working on a 50-mile project that will replace some segments and pressure-test others on an old natural gas pipeline that runs along Interstate 15 but four consumer and green groups say the project should be halted until an environmental review is completed.

The California Public Utilities Commission in February voted to let San Diego Gas & Electric move forward with the pipeline project while the commission reviews its $677 million price tag.

But the California Public Advocates Office, the Sierra Club, the Southern California Generation Coalition and the The Utility Reform Network have filed paperwork with the commission, asking it to hold a rehearing.

“I think the commission made a serious error in approving this project that had never gone through any public scrutiny,” said Matt Vespa, staff attorney at Earthjustice representing the Sierra Club.

SDG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp called the opposition’s argument “simply wrong,” and said earlier decisions by the commission and its Safety Enforcement Division ruled the project “did not trigger” the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

The groups joined the fight against the plan after the San Diego-based Protect Our Communities Foundation, filed for a rehearing last month claiming the commission made a “rushed” decision to let the project proceed.

“Of course you want to do environmental review before you start digging up roads in Rancho Bernardo and rights-of-way in Mira Mesa,” foundation board member Bill Powers said. “They (the utilities commission) just missed it.”

SDG&E’s Line 1600 runs north and south between the Rainbow Station and the Mission Station, carrying natural gas to customers in a pipeline 16 inches in diameter.

Built in 1949, the line provides only about 10 percent of capacity for the San Diego area but the line is critical because it’s the only source of natural gas supply for about 150,000 customers in eastern Fallbrook, Valley Center, Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Peñasquitos, Poway, Scripps Ranch, Kearny Mesa and Serra Mesa.

SDG&E, working with fellow Sempra Energy affiliate Southern California Gas, plans to replace 37 miles of Line 1600 that runs through urban and suburban areas and hydrotest the remaining 13 miles located in more rural areas.

The project will be done in 19 segments and workers on the first portion — a 2.44-mile stretch on Midway Drive in Escondido — broke ground last month.

SDG&E estimated the $677 million project would amount to a typical customer using 24 therms of gas paying 42 cents more per month.

The utility says the 71-year-old line is riddled with some defects known as “hook cracks” but questions have been raised about the cost of the project.

The commission failed to pass a proposed decision that would have delayed work until the price tag was finalized. Instead, commissioners OK’d an alternative that allowed crews to start promptly while the final cost is sorted out.

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“These are going to be challenging issues that we deal within the coming years,” commissioner Liane Randolph said at the time, “but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we are talking about a transmission line in high consequence areas so we really need to keep safety at the top of mind.”
In its filing for a rehearing the four groups said the project will use new rights-of-way that require an environmental assessment and the commission committed “a legal error” when it approved the Line 1600 replace and repair program.

SDG&E’s Ramp said each segment of the line “that requires a discretionary permit will undergo CEQA consideration by the agency or jurisdiction that issues that permit” and the utility “will continue to fully comply with all applicable laws and regulations, including CEQA.”

Powers said the commission has no hard and fast timeline to decide whether to accept or reject the application for a rehearing but “we would hope they respond expeditiously because SDG&E is digging trenches.”

So far, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have not suspended work on the Line 1600 project, Ramp said. The second segment — covering 4.12 miles along Black Mountain Road in Mira Mesa — is scheduled to start on April 6, weather permitting.