Big Oil and Gas may have a tight grip on California, but a popular backlash against the industry and its corrupt relationships in the halls of power could lead to the prying off of its fingers one by one.
The Center for Public Integrity just published an investigative report echoing our own two—Brown’s Dirty Hands and How Green Is Jerry Brown?—describing the close relationships between Governor Jerry Brown, cowed Democratic lawmakers, and the oil industry.
The price has been lax regulation and the poisoning of communities. Brown fired oil regulators who wanted companies to prove the seaworthiness of their wells before getting permits in the wake of the death of a Chevron worker in a sinkhole caused by a dangerous production technique. Afterwards, aquifers were poisoned by thousands of drilling wastewater injections.
Brown expanded drilling and oil production, rejected a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until the practice was proven safe, and has managed to ignore both a commissioned study recommending a ban on chemicals we don’t understand or that are too hazardous in fracking, and a petition signed by 350,000 people to ban farmers from using drilling waste water on mandarins and raisins until proven harmless.
He has protected Sempra, the parent of Southern California Gas where his sister Kathleen sits on the board. Regulators are rushing to reopen the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility that sprang the biggest methane leak in U.S. history without waiting to see what caused the uncontrollable blowout. Undoubtedly, as we saw in Pacific Gas & Electric’s tragic San Bruno pipeline explosion, the cause will be shoddy maintenance, but the state doesn't want us to know that until the facility reopens and utilities resume buying gas low, parking it, and selling it high when it suits them—to the benefit of shareholders.
Now, momentum is building among the public and among lawmakers to put the people first.
The Los Angeles Times recently published an investigation into major overbuilding of fossil fuel power plants benefitting shareholders of major investor-owned utilities over ratepayers who are paying billions more for electricity than they ought to be. In its wake, three lawmakers are asking regulators to put a new Ventura power plant on ice until it's proven to be indispensable. The turbines it is replacing have barely operated at six percent capacity. A moratorium on all new fossil fuel plants is clearly called for, pending an independent review.
Brown’s favored cap-and-trade program under which companies buy and trade carbon pollution allowances won’t necessarily sail through with a legislative two thirds vote to extend it past 2020 when it is set to expire. That’s because while the program is raising billions for Brown’s high speed rail, it’s doing next to nothing for communities living with pollution. Greenhouse gases are spewed out along with toxic emissions of heavy metals and chemicals. If it's cheaper to buy allowances than install better pollution technology, that is what companies will keep doing. A smarter move would be taxing emissions directly to clean up communities.
Two lawmakers have now introduced legislation to specifically help communities with cleaner air, jobs, and other immediate investments as part of the discussion around extending cap-and-trade. Though Brown allocated $900 million from cap-and-trade funds to low-income communities to subsidize electric cars, new park space, and affordable housing, that doesn’t lower carbon and attendant toxic emissions from stationary sources. Community solar projects in which residents have a direct stake ought to be under discussion, together with green job training programs.
Some communities are drawing a line in the sand on any more pollution. The better-heeled community of Porter Ranch is fighting any effort to reopen the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility. At the first of two public hearings before state regulators, hundreds of angry community members ultimately shut down the hearing with calls to immediately halt the reopening.
Senator Henry Stern, who has introduced legislation blocking the reopening until the cause of the blowout is determined, said at that hearing that it was a matter of “righting wrongs,” not of politics. At a Senate oversight hearing on the reopening of Aliso, officials described the slow off gassing from the damaged well that is continuing to sicken residents and Stern made the point that the gas stored there has far more to do with buying low and selling high than it does with power reliability.
Isaam Najm, an environmental engineer and President of Porter Ranch neighborhood council, said Oct. 23, 2015, the day that Aliso’s well blew out, “will always be our day in infamy,” the day that disrupted thousands of lives, spewing methane and chemicals all over them as they realized the magnitude of the company’s carelessness.
Lawmakers may find loosening the grip of industry is the better way to go by shuttering Aliso permanently. Otherwise, the day they bless the reopening of Aliso Canyon could become their own day in infamy.