The California Senate Rules Committee voted 3 to 0 on August 23 to confirm Governor Jerry Brown’s nomination of Clifford Rechtschaffen and Martha Guzman Aceves as commissioners on the California Public Utilities Commission, but Senate leaders said the two have serious questions to answer before the confirmation is put to a floor vote.
Consumer advocates speaking at the hearing strongly opposed Rechtschaffen because of his history of coziness with Big Oil and Big Gas interests under the Brown administration. Nobody at the hearing voiced specific opposition to Aceves’ confirmation.
Carmen Balber of Consumer Watchdog noted in a blog post (www.capitolwatchdog.org/) that Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon “took the unusual step of withholding his support for Governor Brown’s nominees to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), arguing that they have many questions to answer before de Leon agrees to give them a vote by the full Senate.”
After questioning Rechtschaffen and Guzman, de Leon said he didn’t vote on the confirmation because he still had questions about how the appointees will rebuild public confidence in an agency that has been enmeshed in numerous scandals in recent years.
"You're getting out by the skin of your teeth right now," de Leon said after the vote. Senator Anthony Cannella also abstained from voting.
While a number of issues were brought up by Senators and the public at the hearing, one of the most alarming was the poor response of Rechtschaffen and other state regulators to the blowout at the 2015 Aliso Canyon Gas Storage facility in Los Angeles that began in October 2015.
“We don’t have yet a conclusive report on the origins of the spill,” de Leon told the Senate Committee and the two new commissioners. “We don't yet have a report on the seismic risks of reopening. Yet, the regulators are moving forward with the methane injection of wells.”
He also pointed out that it took three months for the CPUC to respond to a letter he sent them regarding the Porter Ranch disaster.
“Why did it take so long? If it took three months to respond to me, how long would it take to respond to me colleagues and peers?” de Leon asked.
Rechtschaffen responded, “I don’t know how it took so long...but I’m positive that this issue is very much alive and being considered.”
Members of families in Porter Ranch and the Northern San Fernando Valley sickened by gas facility blowout traveled to Sacramento to speak out against his confirmation.
They testified how Rechtschaffen, Governor Jerry Brown’s former top oil and gas advisor and his nominee to the CPUC, ignored regulations that could have prevented the blowout that released 100,000 tons of methane into the air. The blowout is considered the second biggest oil or natural gas disaster since the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010.
State regulators earlier this month permitted the Aliso Canyon facility, closed for nearly two years, to reopen on a limited basis in spite of the lack of a full environmental or seismic review. Regulators also failed to disclose the cause of the leak or who was responsible,
Alex Kim, who emigrated from Korea in the mid-1970s and hasn’t protested since his student days in Seoul, said he was forced to protest once again against the mismanagement of the gas blowout, since his wife suffers ongoing nosebleeds and headaches and his grandchild suffered rashes that he attributes to the blowout.
“I was disappointed that the Senate let Rechtschaffen’s confirmation go forward,” said Kim, a semi-retired business owner, after the hearing. “In the hearing, Rechtschaffen said the safety of the people is a priority, but that was not the case at Alison Canyon.”
“The CPUC is supposed to watch over gas facilities and make sure everything is OK so people can go about their lives,” said Kim. “Somebody has to be held responsible. People need to get fired or disciplined. I never saw anybody investigated for what happened at Porter Ranch. They are just pointing fingers at one another. They are covering their butts, but still get paid the same.”
Melanie Demont, a retired school teacher, said she was forced to evacuate from her home for months until the leak was capped. She ended up in urgent care and the ER, due to respiratory symptons resulting from exposure to the methane gas and other gases released in the blowout. Like Kim, she asked the Senate Rules Committee to reject Rechtschaffen’s nomination to the CPUC.
Representatives from Food & Water Watch, Consumer Watchdog and Save Porter Ranch said they also opposed the nomination because of Rechtschaffen’s history of interceding on behalf of the oil and gas industry.
“We called on the Committee to deny Rechtschaffen’s appointment because of his record during the Brown administration of favoring the oil and gas industry at the expense of everyday people,” said Adam Scow, California Director of Food & Water Watch. “We need a regulator on the commision who will stand up to industry and to the Governor when he's wrong.”
He added that “Rechtschaffen has dutifully carried out” some of the worst things Governor Brown has done, incuding the firing of regulators trying to make oil companies comply with the law, reopening Aliso Canyon, and allowing oil corporations to get exemptions for disposal of toxic waste.
“We just can’t have a yes man on the Commission,” emphasized Scow. “The point is that it is wrong to pollute and destroy our groundwater.”
Mike Mattoch, lawyer for Consumer Watchdog, testified to Rechtschaffen’s 2011 firing of two oil and gas regulators, Elena Miller and Derek Chernow, at the behest of Occidental Petroleum. This led to the weakening of well safety standards, as reported in court filings in a RICO lawsuit filed by San Joaquin Valley farmers and clean water advocates in 2015.
He emphasized that Rechtschaffen, while directing the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), blocked rules that could have prevented a worker death, protected aquifers from oil wastewater contamination and stopped the Aliso Canyon blowout.
Balber noted that Rechtschaffen must be approved this year, or the governor will have to replace him.
“Senator de Leon says he’s going to demand answers. The question now is: What are the questions?” she said in her blog post.
She suggested some key questions the Senate must ask ask about Rechtschaffen:
“For the public to have any confidence in the Senate’s oversight of the governor and the Public Utilities Commission, they must include:
- Why did Rechtschaffen fire two key regulators who were enforcing well safety and permitting standards, and then weaken standards that could have prevented the contamination of our groundwater and the Aliso blowout?
- What was Rechtschaffen’s role in the emergency proclamation issued by Governor Brown on Aliso Canyon that moved the investigation into the cause of the leak behind closed doors?
- How does Rechtschaffen justify the reopening of Aliso Canyon in light of protests from Los Angeles County that a seismic review to determine the earthquake risk at the Aliso Canyon facility is necessary before its reopening? How does he justify the reopening, for reliability purposes, in light of a Los Angeles County study that found Aliso is not needed to keep the lights on?
- What was Rechtschaffen’s role in the governor’s attempts to push California into a regional western electricity grid, subject California to dirty energy imports and subordinate local regulation to FERC and Trump administration appointees?”
Richard Mathews, a board member of Save Porter Ranch, said in regard to Rechtschaffen’s confirmation, “This is a hiring decision. When you hire somebody, you start off by looking at their resume and see if they meet the basic requirements. Rechtschaffen meets the basic requirements.”
“But the thing that the Senate has to ask: is this the best person for the job . He clearly isn’t. We can do better — we must do better,” Mathews concluded.
In contrast with representatives of Porter Ranch families, Food and Water Watch, Consumer Watchdog and Save Porter Ranch, staff from the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Community Water Center, Clean Water Action and a number of energy companies recommended the confirmation of both Brown appointees.
To read about Jerry Brown’s deep familial conflict of interest regarding the Aliso Canyon gas facility, read Consumer Watchdog’s new report questioning how Kathleen Brown’s million-dollar payout from Sempra influenced the Brown administration’s repeated decision-making in favor of the energy giant and its utility subsidiaries, including the ill-advised reopening of the facility.
While the media often fawningly portrays Brown as a “climate leader” and the “resistance” to President Donald Trump as the Governor jets off to international climate conferences, the reality is much different, according to public trust advocates. In fact, Brown has collaborated with Trump on fast-tracking the construction of the controversial Delta Tunnels and the exemption of California oilfields from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Over just the past few weeks, the Brown administration has incurred the wrath of environmental justice advocates, conservationists and increasing numbers of Californians by:
- Ramrodding Big Oil’s environmentally unjust cap-and-trade bill, AB 398, through the legislature
- Approving the reopening of the dangerous SoCalGas natural gas storage facility at Porter Ranch
- Green-lighting the flawed EIS/EIR documents permitting the construction of the California WaterFix
- Issuing a “take” permit to kill endangered salmon and Delta smelt in the Delta Tunnels.