Reopening Aliso Canyon Gas Reserve Is Litmus Test For CA Senate Democrats

Four Democrats currently have the power to determine who really runs the state of California’s fossil fuel policies—policymakers or a major energy company named Sempra.

The litmus test: Whether these Democrats vote for SB 57, a bill authored by Henry Stern that requires the state and Sempra’s subsidiary Southern California Gas to reveal what caused the biggest methane well blowout in US history before the Aliso Canyon gas reserve is allowed to reopen.

But this vote is also bigger than that. It’s a critical test of whether lawmakers are really serious about getting us off of oil and gas as fast as possible—or if oil and gas and petroleum-related industries that feed their campaigns will keep the upper hand. (The only bills to fail in the Senate last week were three environmental bills—including Stern’s. The other two also involved petroleum-based products). 

Last week, Stern’s eminently sensible, even tame bill, was not brought to the Senate floor because too many Democrats were abstaining. The cowardly act of "walking," rather than taking a yes or no stand on legislation, is the Capitol-honored way legislators believe they will neither anger their constitutents nor a powerful company like Sempra. History has proven, however, that such abdication of their duties can work against them even more.

Stern can bring the bill up again anytime this session, but the votes have to line up first. That’s tough to pull off when three out of four fence-sitting Democrats are suckling at the breast of Sempra for campaign donations.

Senator Ed Hernandez is running for Lt. Governor. He’s taken $42,550 from the oil and gas industry and $9,300 from Sempra since 2006, according to Followthemoney.org. He should be ashamed of himself. As a health care provider—an optometrist—in predominantly low-income communities, he of all people should heed Dr. Jeffrey Nordella.

Nordella has found a pattern of low red-blood cell counts and abnormal pulmonary functions among roughly 50 Aliso Canyon area residents exposed to the blowout. Residents continue to report nosebleeds, nausea, headaches, corneal abrasions consistent with toxic exposure to sensitive membranes. Some are going blind. Teachers are getting cancer and one recently died of cancer diagnosed after the blowout and associated with toxic exposure.

But Hernandez is afraid to take a stand. Ditto Senator Josh Newman. He’s facing a recall from a Republican contender for an unpopular vote he took on a road tax. Newman has taken no dollars from the oil and gas industry, including Sempra. Perhaps he's worried Sempra might contribute to his recall election if he goes the wrong way. Senator Richard Roth has taken $19,050 from the oil and gas industry since 2006, and for the first time last year he took $6,300 from Sempra. Senator Cathleen Galgiani has taken far more substantial sums of $102,665 from oil and gas companies, and $12,500 from Sempra, since 2006. 

It’s easy for Senators to cite “energy reliability” as a concern when it comes to living without Aliso Canyon. Sempra has spent nearly $440,000 in 2017 lobbying dollars, according to Followthemoney.org, to convince legislators of that. SoCalGas and the regulators in bed with it have used the mantra often enough that Senators must mouth it in their sleep. But the argument is specious in the face of independent studies of pipeline infrastructure and gas supply that show that we have more than enough gas through existing supplies to meet demand without Aliso Canyon. Even regulators at the California Energy Commission are reportedly backing off  approved plans to build gas-powered electricity plants following a Los Angeles Times report on overcapacity of electricity in the state.

SoCalGas makes money off of Aliso Canyon by letting commercial companies like refineries and electric power utilities buy gas low and then store it there until it’s used or sold high. But cheap natural gas is readily available on demand. In the blowout's wake, regulators required SoCalGas to order supplies a day in advance to meet demand, and it worked so well that SoCalGas stopped following instructions, manipulating the market to create a phony need to draw on the facility last January. 

State regulators have admitted that the facility isn’t needed this summer to keep the AC or lights on, nor this coming winter for heating. If regulators mandate that mitigation measures like ordering gas a day in advance off pipelines to meet demand become permanent, we will never need Aliso again. Especially since major California electric and gas utilities report that natural gas demand will fall at a rate of 1.4 percent per year from now through 2035.

Stern’s bill doesn’t shut the facility down permanently, though that should be the next step that the legislature takes. At most, the bill stalls what Sempra views as the inevitable—the reopening of a facility that the region does not need but that supplies Sempra with a steady rate of return on the backs of ratepayers. 

Here is the basic equation: if the state of California and its governor are serious about getting off of fossil fuels as fast as possible, this vote is an easy and important first step. Shutting Aliso means that we no longer unnecessarily store carbon-emitting natural gas that is dangerous, shoddily maintained, poorly regulated, and making people sick.

Refusing to reopen Aliso will take the force of will among lawmakers to break a personal addiction to energy industry financial donations. That includes Governor Jerry Brown getting behind the shuttering of Aliso when his sister Kathleen Brown has made hundreds of thousands of dollars and taken stock options for sitting on Sempra’s board, and when he himself has accepted millions of dollars in oil, gas and other energy industry donations to his campaigns, causes, and ballot initiatives since 2011. 

The other day, on his way to China in the wake of Trump’s Paris Accord pullout, he assured Press Play radio host Madeleine Brand that California was “redoubling its commitment to build a sustainable future.” This is an easy chance for Brown and the legislature to prove it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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