#BrownOut Over Aliso? Sunlight for Moonbeam?

Porter Ranch

The rush of state officials to take on Southern California Gas at Porter Ranch, including the filing of criminal charges by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, brings the scandal over the largest methane leak in California history right to the doorstep of Gov. Brown.

Brown’s sister, Kathleen, is a board member of Southern California Gas parent company, Sempra, and to-be-named-later corporate officers were identified in the case filed yesterday by Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Big Bro’ Brown’s immediate culpability is the secrecy his emergency order of January 6thon Aliso Canyon provided for state investigators to lock Porter Ranch residents and the public out of getting any information until the investigation was over. 

Without the PUC taking any public action,  suddenly a completely private investigation was launched.

That’s why Consumer Watchdog joined with Aguirre & Severson - Enron and PUC busters - Monday to petition for an open PUC investigation that includes sharing documents with the public. 

If you have a home in Porter Ranch, the question on your mind is this: why not shut Aliso Canyon's unsafe natural gas storage down?

The federal Energy Information Agency says there’s plenty of natural gas if you do. But right after our open-the-investigation petition was filed, the troika of Brown Administation energy czars wrote him that that brownouts could ensue if Aliso closes.

The heads of California’s Public Utility Commission, California Energy Commission, and California Independent Systems Operator wrote they are studying the issue, per the Gov’s emergency order,  and “our shared concern is electric system reliability for this summer, and both gas and electric reliability for next winter and beyond in the event the injections cannot resume.”

The secret investigation won’t be over until April, which is a problem for Aliso residents looking for an alternative to the relief well that's going to be in place by about March 1. If it doesn’t work, or if there’s a blowout, Porter Ranch’s problems could get a lot worse.

The energy czars’ letter came on Groundhog Day, which is ironic because it’s reminiscent of threats during California’s electricity crisis that the lights would go out if we didn't pay Enron and the energy pirates. The slogan back then: Lights Out 2002, Gray Out 2003. 

The recall that brought down Gray Davis was in part generated by the electricity deregulation crisis and blackouts.  Governor Brown has been very popular in his final term, but as we pointed out two weeks ago in “Special Report: Will Porter Ranch and PUC-gate Ruin Brown’s Legacy?” Brown still has a lot to lose from mishandling the current crisis.

Claiming the electric grid is at risk, while keeping the public in the dark about the details of the investigation, has too familiar a refrain for those of us with a memory of the Enron years.  Our co-counsel in the PUC petition Mike Aguirre, who led the case against Enron, was right there back then too. Nonetheless, he reports yesterday being ironically shut out of a PUC proceeding on how to handle public records when a PUC bureaucrat closed down his phone line. 

What Gov Brown's missing, and why #Brownout could become a real hash tag one day too if the Porter Ranch residents get going, is that the public deserves public investigations.  The scandals in San Bruno and San Onofre should have taught us this.

The governor they called “Moonbeam” has an outright hostility to sunshine in government, particularly when it involves the cronyism between his Administration and the public utilities.

Dozens of government agencies may be buzzing about Porter Ranch, but what they find is shrouded in secrecy by Brown’s January 6 declaration of emergency.

Brown’s man in the PUC Prez Picker took the extraordinary steps of bypassing a public California Public Utilities Commission meeting and process to come up with a scope of investigation and process that locks the public out until the findings are issued.

The wellhead itself is closed down from public viewing.  Porter Ranch residents report no independent testing of the air has been done over the wellhead, which is critical since Aliso is an old oil well that could contain benzene, a carcinogen.

The focus of the state investigation may be SoCal Gas but state agencies’ mishandling of these events need scrutiny too.

The PUC planned an expansion of gas compression in Aliso as a way of providing more natural gas to electric plants in Southern California.  This was the plan the PUC and the Brown energy czar troika came up with to replace the lost energy generation in San Onofre.  The increasing injections of more gas under higher pressure in Aliso over the past year was in sync with that priority, though the new compressor was not scheduled to come on line until later this year. 

Ironically, when the three energy czars wrote Brown this week about the potential #brownouts and their secret investigation they wrote, “We are bringing the same urgency and attention to this as we did when faced with the unexpected closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.”

To the degree that plan led to increased natural gas pressure in Aliso, it very well could have contributed to the leak. More reason for a public investigation.

Will Moombeam let in the sunlight? 

PG&Eer Dana Williamson resigned as Brown's Cabinet Secretary this week. Senator Mike Gatto announced a bill today for a constitutional amendment to completely blow up the PUC and give the legislature the right to reallocate its power based on its failures in San Bruno and Porter Ranch. It could be the midnight hour for the PUC, a constitutionally independent agency. It should be saved, not blown up, but it must concede to reform first.

The Gov should do the right thing and consider ending his blackout of the Aliso investigation.  It could be a legacy saver.

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