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No More Blackout Blackmail: Guest Commentary

LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

Recently, city leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Gov. Jerry Brown administration energy regulators warned of “blackouts” if Aliso Canyon’s natural gas storage remains shut. They pointed to a state report, raising the blackout threat, after which Southern California Gas Co. said it would have Aliso operating again by summer.

The one-two punch hit hard at residents in communities from Porter Ranch to Chatsworth, Reseda and Woodland Hills, who don’t trust well safety after the largest methane leak in U.S. history. It struck as well at ratepayers, who will be on the hook for a $200 million Aliso expansion already approved by the Public Utility Commission.

What the politicians and energy regulators didn’t highlight is the fact that SoCalGas, the owner of the gas reserve, with the most to gain financially from its reopening, was a co-author of the study.

Crying blackout in California is the equivalent of crying fire in a crowded movie theater. But when the city, state and utilities are doing it, who can protect the public?

In fact, the state’s Aliso blackout report says more about the very real threat posed by California’s failure to oversee gas, oil and utility companies, than about the highly unlikely chance of electricity blackouts if Aliso remains closed.

The real blackout is informational. The blackout report was developed in a secret process among energy regulators who answer to Gov. Jerry Brown, the PUC and SoCalGas, the company that stands to lose billions if Aliso does not reopen. Gov. Brown’s sister Kathleen Brown sits on the board of Sempra, SoCalGas’s parent company.

Consumer advocates, including myself, petitioned for an open public investigation months ago, but the PUC has refused to even rule on the request.

When independent engineer Bill Powers examined the state/SoCalGas analysis for Food & Water Watch, he found there was no real blackout threat, especially given that winter is the peak period for natural gas demand, not summer.

Powers found the state report fails to acknowledge that other gas storage facilities could easily handle Aliso’s role and that the report understates pipe capacity by a factor of two.

In light of the Powers report, the state Senate Energy Committee has called an oversight hearing for May 10 to check the energy regulators’ and SoCalGas’s math.

This type of check and balance is critical because the Brown administration has been all too willing to give oil and gas companies and utilities great deference at the expense of the public.

Brown’s culpability for Aliso begins with his hostility to oil well safety.

In 2011, Brown fired two top oil and gas regulators who raised concerns about the oil and gas industry’s underground injection activities and overhauled well safety to the benefit of the public, not the oil and gas industry. The firings lowered well safety standards at the Department of Conservation and Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and this directly led to the Aliso well inspection failures.

The DOGGR dismissals came at the request of Occidental Petroleum, which hired former Gov. Gray Davis to do its bidding, and were openly touted as a victory by the oil lobby. Shortly afterward, Occidental contributed $500,000 to Gov. Brown’s Prop 30 tax rate initiative.

Four years later, when the crisis in Porter Ranch threatened to overshadow the governor’s standing as a climate reformer, Brown issued a Declaration of Emergency that ensured the state’s investigation in Aliso would be kept from the public. Such secrecy undermines public trust, but is a hallmark of Brown-era energy politics and the corruption scandals enveloping it.

Exhibit A is corruption at the PUC. State emails made public in the wake of the scandals around decommissioning of Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant and around Pacific Gas & Electric’s San Bruno gas line explosion show the Brown-era pandering to utilities and indifference to ratepayers. Rather than condemn the corruption, Brown has spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money trying to keep administration emails with the PUC secret.

Former PUC president Michael Peevey is under criminal investigation for secretly working with utility lobbyists to hide key facts from the public, extort seven figure favors and push the burden for both disasters on ratepayers. Yet Brown’s hand-picked successor, PUC President Michael Picker, has refused to reopen the San Onofre settlement, which cost ratepayers $3.3 billion, preferring to protect Edison shareholders.

Brown’s top aide Nancy McFadden, a former PG&E senior vice president, is under investigation by the state’s political watchdog for failing to properly disclose stock in former employer PG&E (a complaint filed by my consumer group) while working on utility issues.

The utilities are big Democratic donors. The governor is a Democrat. But the duty of the Legislature, albeit Democrat-controlled, is to protect the public first. We are all in jeopardy unless there is a check and balance on the failure of energy regulators in this state to tell the truth, let alone regulate.

Jamie Court is president of Consumer Watchdog and a founder of www.CapitolWatchdog.org.