Pictured: Holly Johnson and Erich Schaffer (front) of West Ventura join the march on Ventura Ave. with about 160 residents and supporters protesting the expansion of the Southern California Gas Co. compression facility on April 24, 2021. Photo by Barry Harrington.
by Kimberly Rivers
On April 26 the Ventura City Council unanimously passed a resolution requesting the state agencies that have jurisdiction over a plan for the expansion of a West Ventura natural gas compressor facility to ensure proper studies are done to protect public health and safety of the residents of West Ventura.
Ventura Mayor Sofia Rubalcava challenged the two Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) representatives on various aspects of the plan to clean up contaminated soil under the area where existing office buildings at the site will be replaced. SoCalGas also plans to upgrade three compression engines with four new modern engines that will increase the overall horsepower of the facility.
Rubalcava asked whether the facility had the capability to detect the leaks in 2017, when NASA found the site to be a “super emitter” of methane.
“We do test our facilities consistent with all applicable regulations,” answered Jessica Foley, public policy planning manager in the construction department with SoCalGas. She described how “any kind of operation can have mov[ing] parts, vibration and have really small leaks occur.” SoCalGas reports it has fixed the leaks identified by NASA.
“It could have been going on for months or for years,” said Tomás Rebecchi, a resident of Ventura who lives two blocks from the compressor station site. He was speaking during public comment and said his two small children will attend E.P. Foster Elementary School, which is just across the street from the project site. “We have many concerns, and not a lot of answers.”
Modernization or expansion?
Maria Ventura, public affairs manager for SoCalGas, emphasized that in the view of the company, the project is needed for proper maintenance and modernization. When asked by councilmembers about the use of the word “modernization” rather than “expansion,” she said the project would not result in any increase in service; the same customers would be serviced by the site. Ventura emphasized that the project is aimed at ensuring “affordable and reliable” natural gas supply to existing customers from Ventura County to Santa Maria.
After being pressed by Councilmember Mike Johnson (Dist. 3), who confirmed the increase in horsepower at the facility with the new compressors, Foley admitted that more gas could be going through the facility.
“There may be more gas flowing through this station in order to offset the loss of the gas in the northern system,” said Foley. “The dynamics of the energy delivery system has changed, not just with SoCalGas but as a collective total in the energy system.” According to Foley, the upgrade is needed because of a decrease in natural gas production in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and so the additional horsepower is needed at this compressor site to push more gas through the facility all the way to Santa Maria.
“To me that sounds like an expansion,” said Rubalcava.
SoCalGas officials say it’s a needed modernization project to provide reliable energy as the company transitions to meet its net zero goals by 2045, but local residents and community organizations say it’s merely a profit-driven expansion plan that isn’t warranted given the decrease in natural gas demand overall. By mischaracterizing the project as a mere modern upgrade, the project circumvents a thorough environmental review, including an assessment of how it will impact residents of the state designated disadvantaged community.
This tactic is referred to as piecemealing, and diffuses the environmental impact of the full project. The project in pieces may be able to avoid full environmental review under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Questions regarding safety, operation and groundwater contamination
Only one public speaker, David Grau with the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, spoke in support of SoCalGas. Grau emphasized the findings of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which found that the project would not have a significant environmental impact. DTSC has jurisdiction over the portion of the plan that involves soil cleanup, not the additional gas compressor engines.
Even in light of modernization, Foley reported that the new facility would still “vent to the air” in the event of an emergency related to high pressure in the system. When asked how often the safety systems are tested, she said she’d have to get back to the council.
In responding to questions from Councilmember Lorrie Brown (Dist. 6), Ventura clarified that two to three compressor engines are expected to be operated at the same time, and there will be no new pipes installed outside the facility boundaries. Foley clarified, however, that operational needs determine how many compressors are operated at any given time, and in some cases that could mean all engines would run at once.
Councilmember Doug Halter (Dist. 2) sought clarification about whether there was groundwater contamination in the area. Foley confirmed that the DTSC report found “infiltration,” but noted that it was outside of SoCalGas property boundaries. With an “area that has had industrial use for 100 years, there has been historic groundwater infiltration . . . there have been constituents noted in the groundwater table . . . at 35 feet below ground surface.” She said the contamination has “largely been associated with properties west” of the SoCalGas property.
Rubalcava noted the 10 similar facilities across Southern California and asked whether any of them existed in a similar community — near homes and a school — and whether such a facility would be built in that type of location today. Foley told the council she would have to “circle back” with specifics but said, “the circumstances of the Ventura station have evolved over 100 years . . . so the situation is somewhat unique . . . This station has been in operation since 1923 . . . over time, land use in the area has definitely changed.”
According to Foley, this site is rated as a “three out of four” for surrounding residential density. By way of comparison, she said downtown Los Angeles would be a four.
Watch the April 26 Ventura City Council meeting online at