Orange Cove hydrogen project faces local backlash

Community members apprehensive of SoCalGas hydrogen blending project proposed for Orange Cove, say they don’t want to be “guinea pigs”

Cultiva La Salud Executive Director Veva Islas speaks to Orange Cove residents at a meeting held by the organization in the Orange Cove Branch LIbrary May 30, 2024.
Serena Bettis
Published June 11, 2024  • 
9:00 am

ORANGE COVE – Months after the city council approved a partnership with the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) that would bring hydrogen blending to Orange Cove, residents and advocacy groups are pushing back on the idea. 

Nearly two dozen Orange Cove community members gathered at the Orange Cove Branch Library on May 30 to discuss the hydrogen blending project, which some residents have said they knew nothing about up until recently. With help from Cultiva La Salud, a Fresno-based nonprofit focused on health equity in the Valley, and Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, a legal advocacy organization, residents are learning more about the project and what it means for their rural community.

“For me, the bottom line is not that we’re trying to drive any decision by the city, we simply want to educate the community and let the community decide what’s in their best interest,” Cultiva La Salud Executive Director Veva Islas said.

Jamie Katz, a staff attorney with Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, was present at the meeting to help provide residents with information about the project and discuss what they could do about it. 

“Residents can always advocate at their local government and if they have concerns, they’re welcome to raise those with the city council, and then there are other public processes that they’re able to participate in because there are other decisions that need to be made whether or not the project’s gonna move forward,” Katz said. 

Representatives from SoCalGas, including an employee who lives in Orange Cove, also attended the meeting and began discussions with residents about the project but were asked to leave the meeting before it officially began. Katz said the meeting was for Orange Cove residents only and representatives from SoCalGas were welcome to schedule their own meeting to provide additional information. 

Residents later on also asked representatives from the city, including Public Works Director Dario Dominguez and Councilmember Maria Vacio, and this reporter to leave the meeting so that they could feel more comfortable discussing their concerns with the project. Katz and Islas said they wanted people to feel like they could speak freely under attorney-client privilege.

“I think, again, these are legitimate questions and concerns, and I would love for the city to host maybe a bigger forum with the residents and allow these type of questions to be asked and have a real plan about how these concerns could be mitigated and responded to,” Islas said. “I don’t think we’ve heard that and I don’t think the residents feel that confidence yet.” 

City continues its support for the project

SoCalGas first introduced the topic of hydrogen blending to Orange Cove residents in November 2023 when the company presented it to the city council and held a community engagement meeting on the subject. At that time, SoCalGas wanted to gauge community interest in the project and was still in the process of selecting a city in its service area to partner with on the project.

At a February council meeting, SoCalGas announced to the Orange Cove City Council during public comment that the city was selected as the best candidate for the project and in March, the city council approved a resolution directing city administrators to work with SoCalGas on the demonstration project. 

Council members and city staff have said they are excited about the project and feel it is a good opportunity to put Orange Cove “on the map.” Responding to an opinion column about the project in the Fresno Bee that called residents “lab subjects,” Orange Cove Mayor Diana Guerra Silva wrote in a letter to the editor that the statement “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

“This region is proud to continue its role as the energy capital of the state,” Guerra Silva wrote. “As a steward of the city, it is my responsibility to seek out projects that will provide ongoing and long-term economic and environmental benefits to the residents of Orange Cove. That’s why we sought out this opportunity; we’re proud to welcome this hydrogen blending demonstration project.”

The project is not a done-deal, however; SoCalGas submitted a project application to the CPUC for approval at the beginning of March, and the CPUC is not expected to make a decision until the end of the year. Considering the application is only a proposal, the details of the project are not fully worked out yet and could be subject to change.

Miguel Ramirez, public affairs manager for the Southern California Gas Company, explains the purpose of the company's hydrogen blending demonstration project in the city of Orange Cove during a meeting about the project held by organization Cultiva La Salud at the Orange Cove Branch Library May 30, 2024. (Serena Bettis)

Residents pose safety questions

Hydrogen blending — the process of mixing renewable, clean hydrogen gas with natural gas to reduce carbon emissions — has been in use for decades in Hawai’i and is being piloted in Canada and Europe. While it is not a new concept, it is new to California’s energy grid, and with that comes a variety of concerns for residents and environmentalists about the safety and effectiveness of the practice. 

According to previous reporting by the Mid Valley Times from Nov. 13, 2023, SoCalGas and other publicly-owned utility companies are putting together hydrogen blending demonstration projects under direction from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Before it’s more widely implemented, the CPUC wants utilities to conduct demonstration projects to find a hydrogen injection standard. 

Further, research conducted by the public utilities has shown how hydrogen blending can be feasible and safe in a controlled environment; the demonstration projects will provide data for the application of hydrogen blending within an open system. 

Orange Cove residents who are wary of the project have questioned why their city has to be the location of this experiment. Islas said residents feel like guinea pigs and want to know why this is specifically being tested in Orange Cove, a rural agricultural community with a majority Latino population and high rates of poverty. 

“Tonight there was a comment specifically about why can’t it be tried somewhere else and then brought here if it’s safe?” Islas said. “There’s really a lot of insecurity about the unknown and what potentially could happen.” 

Many concerns revolve around the potential safety risks that could come alongside the project. Hydrogen gas is more flammable than natural gas and the potential for leakage is higher. Additionally, higher concentrations of hydrogen gas can cause pipes to become brittle and crack more easily.

Taking that into consideration, residents want to know if SoCalGas will check their homes to ensure their gas lines are safe before the project begins, as well as if the company will be responsible for fixing any damage to gas lines or household appliances caused by the project. 

“We’ve heard concerns about the fact that Orange Cove is an older community, it doesn’t have new infrastructure,” Islas said. “What does the hydrogen blending mean in terms of the piping, the natural gas lines that exist now? … Hydrogen is more flammable, so there’s concerns about ‘can there be explosions? Is this something that could be realistic?’”

Other concerns include the hydrogen blending facility’s proximity to three schools; its proposed location is on the southwest corner of Jacobs and South Avenues. The city of Orange Cove spans only one square mile, and residents are worried that they may need to evacuate if there is a leak in a gas line or at the facility. 

At the May 30 meeting, residents said that just because there have not been catastrophic accidents caused by hydrogen blending does not guarantee that something bad will not happen, and they do not want to take that chance in their community. Islas said Orange Cove is not an affluent community — if someone’s house is damaged, it’s not easy to repair.

“I think it’s fair and it’s right for residents to be concerned about their welfare and wellbeing and that of their children and other vulnerable community members that may be in their home, like elders,” Islas said. “I think that’s a legitimate concern, and the truth is that SoCalGas has an agenda. That they are a for-profit company, and that it is in their pocketbook interest to want to expand and to be at the forefront.”

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter