What’s Behind The Sundown Showdown Over Natural Gas Drilling At Porter Ranch In Assembly?

The 1881 shootout at O.K. Corral between a group of outlaws and lawmen took place on a hot day in broad daylight.  Today So Cal Gas, and other proponents of the aging natural gas storage infrastructure, face off against Senator Pavley’s proposed moratorium on natural gas drilling at a very- late-in-the-day hearing in the Assembly Utilities Committee ( 3 PM start  for SB 380 and other bills).  It’s hardly a made-for-media moment, scheduled post-newspaper print deadline.  And Pavley’s enemies have not shown their true faces, but their powerful grip has been felt.

The perpetrator of the Porter Ranch crisis, Southern California Gas, for example, has been lobbying behind the scenes, as the Los Angeles Times reports, including through surrogates. Opposition letters from former So Cal Gas executives and aligned business interests have surfaced in the Capitol. All warn about an energy reliability problem if the gas reserve is shut down, as much myth as fact, as we’ll get to in a moment.

Where is the Brown Administration? In the shadows. Governor Jerry Brown's Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR, failed to police the wells in Aliso Canyon. Last week it suddenly issued protocols for testing wells that superficially look a lot like Pavley’s SB 380, except, they don’t decommission old wells, or have the force of statute (so they can be waived at will) and there’s no public process for compliance. It’s a signal the administration’s standing on So Cal Gas’s side of the street.

A 3 PM hearing often means a bill’s grave, but this is a big bill. What’s at stake is whether old gas wells in Aliso Canyon will be retired and the rest subject to public process and the force of statute.  The real stakes are whether safety comes first in the ancient fossil fuel infrastructure that carries the gas across Southern California. And whether California steers more quickly away from the fossil fuel, possibly shutting down this reserve and evaluating others, and more quickly turns towards renewables it claims to want anyway.

The PUC and Brown Administration appear to favor the fossil fuel, allegedly to ensure “reliability.” But the PUC has failed to grant an open investigative process and is pursuing a private study to prove energy “reliability” or the lack there-of if Aliso is closed. It’s due out in April, but you can bet early conclusions will be circulating in the Capitol today.

So Cal Gas and its investors stand to lose big if Aliso is closed. Parent company SEMPRA, on whose board Brown’s sister Kathleen sits, has bet big on natural gas, because it is more clean burning than coal, even though it’s a fossil fuel. The shadow So Cal Gas “fact sheet" floating in the Capitol threatens that without Aliso customers “would face electricity outages, natural gas shortages, and potentially high prices for electric and natural gas use.” As do all the So Cal Gas ginned up opponents.

The fact is an independent and public analysis is needed, and not the one undertaken by a corrupted and heavily invested PUC, compromised CEC and complicit ISO, at Brown’s behest.  It's hard to question the "authorities" on their findings when their process and data is not made public, which is why officialdom has yet to embrace closure of Aliso as a real possibility, even though it's not been publicly investigated in an open process.

There is a pipeline from Texas for natural gas. There are other natural gas storage facilities in the LA Basin. Experts say, that over the last dozen years, California has increased its natural gas storage capacity by 50 percent.  California utilities themselves report that natural gas demand will fall a modest two tenths of one percent every year through 2035 as California transitions to renewable energy and new technologies.  

What the legislature has to ask with SB 380 is whether it can trust DOGGR to do what it didn’t do the first time in Aliso.

DOGGR was also the lead agency responsible for the injection of fracking wastewater into federally protected aquifers at least 2,500 times. It was the agency that saw two officials fired by Governor Brown for not rubberstamping fracking permits fast enough.

DOGGR and the PUC are just as culpable for the massive methane blowout at Aliso Canyon as Southern California Gas is. The failure to inspect, the proclivity to look the other way and the drive to increase natural gas storage in Aliso in the wake of San Onofre’s failure is symptomatic of the need for public process and new legislative mandates.

SB 380 is a first step. A public investigation by the PUC is also needed and a petition by Aguirre &Severson and Consumer Watchdog on that point has gone unanswered.

Brown and cronies have been too tight with So Cal Gas and the other utilities, and it’s coming back to roost.   Assembly Member Mike Gatto, who chairs the Utilities Committee, will have an important test of his leadership today.  Will he be the Sheriff in town and maintain order by discussing the real issues behind SB 380? It won’t be at high noon, but the sun will be shining on this hearing.

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