TOO LITTLE TOO LATE-Gray Davis never saw it coming. He didn’t realize until it was too late that the public would blame him for his ineffective action against deregulated electricity pirates like Enron that hijacked the state. That’s why Davis never took the advice of consumer advocates to use his power of eminent domain and seize sabotaged power plants during the phony electricity crisis to turn the power back on.
Does Jerry Brown see that the stink from the growing natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon and other utility scandals could also be the cloud that tarnishes his legacy after four terms of having voters’ favor?
It’s a volatile situation for Brown when you look at the evidence of his Administration’s environmental failure in the three of the state’s most populous regions: LA’s Leak, San Diego’s ratepayer scandal over the closing of the San Onofre Nuclear power plant, and the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion.
Exhibit A: Porter Ranch and Aliso Canyon
The Leak roiling the LA area is now California's single largest source of planet-warming pollution and it was no isolated accident.
It was the result of too little regulatory oversight of Southern California Gas and other oil and gas excavators. That falls squarely on Brown, whose administration is responsible for well safety.
Brown’s antipathy to regulation of all kinds, including health and safety, is well known. The public first started paying attention in February of 2015 when it learned that Brown’s oil and gas regulator turned a blind eye to frackers’ injecting toxic wastewater into federally protected drinking water aquifers in Kern Country.
The contamination, like The Leak, was a direct result of a Brown Administration culture of penalizing regulators who crack down on health safety in the oil and gas industry.
In 2011, Brown fired two top regulators who raised grave concerns about the oil and gas industry's underground injection activities, and the state has known for years that aging natural gas infrastructure was a disaster waiting to happen. But the governor's administration failed even to require safety plans and other measures that would have helped prevent this disaster.
As the Associated Press reported: “California's top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown's senior aides in 2011 that the governor's orders to override key safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting the state's groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified.
“Brown fired the regulators on Nov. 3, 2011, one day after what the fired official says was a final order from the governor to bypass safety provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in granting permits to oil companies for oilfield injection wells. Brown later boasted publicly that the dismissals led to a speed-up of oilfield permitting.”
In 2012, Brown bragged to a Sacramento crowd:
“The oil rigs are moving in Kern County. We want to use our resources … our sun and all the other sources of power. It’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be screw-ups. There’s going to be bankruptcies. There’ll be indictments, and there’ll be deaths. But we’re going to keep going.”
Brown has repeatedly shown this arrogant antipathy toward regulation, what he would call “red tape.” But the right red tape can avoid the yellow hazard tape in places like Porter Ranch, where the resulting failure to inspect and upgrade pipes is a continuation of the same lax Brown Administration policies at the same agency -- the Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
The regulators fired in 2011, Derek Chernow, Acting Director at the Department of Conservation, and DOGGR supervisor Elena Miller, simply dared to repeatedly warn Brown that oil drilling would harm the state’s groundwater, echoing a warning already issued by the EPA. The East Bay Express has the sordid details.
More recently, Brown fired DOGGR supervisor Steve Bohlen on Dec. 8, 2015 when Brown was in Paris for global warming talks. The dismissal was probably not about “Mapgate,” the recent scandal where Brown had DOGGR map his family ranch for oil and gas, as most presumed, but more about Porter Ranch. At least that’s what was told to Capitol Watchdog. Brown was apparently embarrassed that Southern California Gas’s shoddy maintenance at the facility is to blame for the leak, and the fact that the amount of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, leaking into the atmosphere was equivalent to one quarter of the state’s methane emissions from all sources.
Despite So Cal Gas's recent prediction the leak would likely be closed by the end of February, the largest methane leak in California history has the potential to go on a lot longer, if the well-head blows out, and containment becomes infeasible, which is possible according to a recent LA Times report. Such a development would clarify that The Leak is the most visible result of shoddy maintenance and lack of state oil industry oversight that has plagued Brown’s administration.
Lots of questions need to be raised about DOGGR oversight of the collapsed pipe. If it was out of use for a prolonged period, should the leaking well have been stuffed with cement and capped off? If it was still active, why wasn’t it maintained? (The latest theory is that the well was structurally flawed and over-utilized for unorthodox gas injections that pushed its safety limits right before The Leak.) In either case, the questions will be raised, if not by regulators who now have nowhere to hide, and then by trial lawyers circling Aliso Canyon to make it into the next Erin Brockovich movie.
While DOGGR is responsible for well safety, the PUC is responsible for oversight of the utility in charge, Southern California Gas. Brown’s stamp on this PUC has been so indelible that some allege he runs it out of the Governor’s office.
The PUC and Brown will soon face new questions about an expansion of natural gas storage capacity in Aliso Canyon that the PUC and Brown Administration have shepherded. The plan approved last summer, which includes a supersized compressor set to begin operation in the second half of 2016, was supposed to increase natural gas storage in Aliso by 50 percent by increasing the amount of pressure used to inject it. It would feed new Southern California Edison natural gas fired generating plants authorized by the PUC.
The PUC, under the guidance of Brown’s hand-picked chief, Michael Picker, has approved this conscious strategy of rushing to increase the amount of natural gas stored in Aliso Canyon.
The idea is to replace the loss of electricity from San Onofre after its closure with generating capacity in the LA basin through a combination of natural gas-fired electricity generation, battery storage, energy efficiency, and renewables to meet demand through 2021. Ironically, this will increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read here a recently completed PUC proceeding granting approval for natural gas expansion in Aliso for Southern California Gas to add storage and for Southern California Edison to add generating capacity.)
The problem with the project is that by increasing pressure in the natural gas reservoir that feeds many unclosed, unmaintained pipes, the higher pressure could break down more wells. Adding pressure to the reserve is unsafe unless every pipe is retrofitted first. Otherwise the pressure in the reserve could pop another pipe.
Now that The Leak has put the dangers of the compressed natural gas reserve on the map, residents will probably chain themselves to the gates of the new project rather than let it go forward. The PUC, knowing its historical indifference to communities opposing its plans, is likely to go forward even if it means calling out the state’s National Guard to maintain order. The standoff could have all the makings of a Brown Legacy buster.
The natural gas expansion will turn the spotlight onto the Governor. That could reveal an unflattering history of his fealty to the state’s public utilities, including Southern Gas and its parent SEMPRA, where Brown’s sister Kathleen sits on the board and is chair of the board’s health and safety committee. Some say Kathleen was given the job because of her brother’s loyalty to the utility.
Did brother and sister ever communicate about The Leak? Given all the litigation, the question is bound to be asked and answered in discovery and a deposition where the Governor’s usual executive privilege probably won’t protect him.
The cronyism in energy policy under Brown that contributed to The Leak is part of a bigger problem with a statewide shadow falling across Brown’s reputation.
(Jamie Court is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. He is president of Consumer Watchdog, which has offices in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 14 Issue 7
Pub: Jan 22, 2016