(New throughout, adds details from conference call with regulators, attempt to reach Southern California Gas)
By Nichola Groom
LOS ANGELES, Jan 17 (Reuters) - California regulators on Tuesday took a step toward reopening the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility after a major methane leak in 2015 forced the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents, but new injections will not be authorized until the public has the chance to weigh in.
Under the state’s proposal, the amount of natural gas Southern California Gas would be able to store in the Los Angeles-area field would be limited to about one third of its capacity.
SoCalGas, a unit of California energy company Sempra Energy , shut the facility in October 2015 after a massive leak forced the evacuation of thousands of people in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles.
The utility asked regulators for permission to start injecting gas into the cavern, its biggest, last November. It has warned that the limited availability of gas at Aliso Canyon could threaten supplies during the cold winter months.
Regulators from the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources and the California Public Utilities Commission completed their review of the safety of wells at the facility and will hold two public meetings on Feb. 1 and 2.
After those meetings take place, the two agencies will decide jointly on whether the facility can reopen. On a conference call with reporters, California Oil & Gas Supervisor Ken Harris said he did not know how long a decision might take.
On its Facebook page, Save Porter Ranch, a local group seeking to shut the Aliso Canyon facility, urged residents to contact politicians and tell them to keep it closed.
Regulators proposed to limit gas storage in the facility to a maximum of 29 billion cubic feet (bcf). Aliso Canyon can hold up to 83 bcf, according to the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.
Regulators also proposed requiring SoCalGas to keep a minimum of 15.4 bcf in the facility to ensure there is a reserve available during extreme weather.
The facility currently holds 15 bcf, which the utility can use to minimize the risk of gas shortages that could result in electricity outages.
SoCalGas was not immediately available for comment.
To date, 34 wells at the facility have passed the state’s six safety tests, and another 79 have been taken out of service. These wells have one year either to pass all tests or be permanently plugged, DOGGR said. (Reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; Editing by Dan Grebler, Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)