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It’s Not Just Texas: How the California Democratic Supermajority Fails to Regulate Gas Companies

An in-depth look at Aliso Canyon Gas Facility and the failure of government at every level to ensure our safety.

2017 Rally to Shut Down Aliso Canyon. (Photo: Hannah Benet)

When Jane Fowler bought her Granada Hills house in 2007, she planned to retire there. It was perfect, one story, in the seemingly safe suburbs of Los Angeles. She had no idea that she was living just miles away from the largest gas storage facility on the West Coast. Well, not until November 2015, the day before Thanksgiving. As she was driving to therapy that day, she heard the news mention a blowout at Aliso Canyon. In a generally foggy and anxious state that she attributed to either menopause or Alzheimer’s — unlikely as she was in her 50s — she almost dismissed the news entirely. And then it clicked. Aliso Canyon. That’s the park where she walked her dog almost daily before his health suddenly declined. When she called the gas company, Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), and told them about her and her family’s symptoms (nausea, loss of hair, rashes, depression, a dead dog) they told her to evacuate immediately. The facility had been spewing gas for over a month, and she had no idea.

The Aliso Canyon gas blowout was the largest methane gas blowout in U.S. History. On October 23, 2015, SoCalGas discovered that the corroded well SS-25 burst. SoCalGas failed to contain the blowout for 111 days, releasing nearly 100,000 tons of methane — the equivalent of half a million cars on the road for a year.

The carbon footprint of the blowout was greater than that of the BP oil spill (methane is 84 times more potent over a 20-year timeframe than CO2). Thousands of residents of the surrounding neighborhoods were eventually relocated — and over a million people, like Jane, were exposed to not just methane, but crude oil and other carcinogens for four months. And many, according to Fowler, still do not know that it ever happened.

The facility is still leaking. Residents complain of fugitive fires coming out of the dirt, odors, and symptoms that have not gone away five years later. The facility, a converted oil field with 114 wells that date back to the ‘40s is on an active fault line, the Santa Susana Fault. Scientists (and even a study commissioned by SoCalGas) warn that an earthquake could lead to a blowout eight times larger than the 2015 blowout.

Governor Gavin Newsom promised to shut down the facility, multiple times, and yet, five years later, the facility is being used more and more. Natural gas withdrawals have gone up nearly 3,000 percent during his watch. The regulatory bodies supposedly keeping tabs on the facility are instead functioning as an extension of the gas company.

Unfortunately, Aliso Canyon is not an outlier. SoCalGas operates four gas storage facilities in California, and according to their own testimony, they are all in need of serious repair. Aliso Canyon is a case study in how California liberal politicians at every level have failed to do the bare minimum to protect residents from gas utilities. And unfortunately, it is a warning of what is to come.

“People don’t realize they’ve been affected because the Department of Public Health is covering it up,” Helen Attai, community member and co-founder of Aliso Mom’s Alliance.

Jane’s story is not unique. At public hearings and town halls, residents tell story after story of health impacts: fathers, mothers, and children getting cancer, migraines, fatigue, nausea, depression, uncontrollable vomiting, rashes, entire schools relocated. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health (DPH) has received thousands of reports of symptoms that have persisted long after the blowout was sealed.

SoCalGas initially downplayed the blowout and didn’t tell community members what was happening until days later. (Even firefighters battling the leak were not informed.) The gas company told residents that they were only exposed to methane and mercaptan when the blowout emitted a long (and still unknown) list of carcinogens including benzene, acrolein, formaldehyde — to name a few.

Community members expected this kind of behavior from their gas company, but what they did not expect was for the county to go out of its way to cover it up and retaliate against a whistleblower too. There were no alert texts, no television announcements, no signs at the park. In fact, at the time of the blowout, despite evidence from the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) to the contrary, the DPH told residents that Benzene levels were safe.

They even went so far as to send a letter to healthcare professionals — after the blowout was sealed — telling doctors not to perform any toxicological tests.

The one doctor who did continue to perform toxicology tests, Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, was first warned by the DPH to stop and later terminated. (He found traces of uranium, acrolein, and other known carcinogens in urine and hair samples.)

Dr. Nordella said that the actions of the DPH fit a pattern of: “Don’t look, don’t find, don’t tell… then cover-up.” According to Nordella, the DPH also failed to inform residents about exposure to crude oil (even after complaints from the community), did not properly test homes for benzene, and ignored data that showed unhealthy levels of exposure.

Five years later, the community still doesn’t know exactly what they were exposed to, and the 25 million dollar health study the DPH is conducting — which came out of a $119.5 million state, county, and city settlement with SoCalGas — is still years away from even beginning.

According to Andrew Krowne, who sits on the Community Advisory Group (CAG) for the study, progress has been much slower than necessary. In August 2020, community members discovered that SoCalGas stored bins of hazardous material from the blowout in the facility for years — and DPH knew and did nothing. SoCalGas disposed of 30 bins of soil from the blowout site, evidence crucial to help nearby residents now living with chronic illness. The County could subpoena SoCalGas for the list of chemicals present at Aliso Canyon but hasn’t.

The DPH is under county control. According to Helen Attai, a member of Aliso Mom’s Alliance, whenever you ask the DPH a question they deflect to the county counsel — who is never present.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the Supervisor who represents the district, has refused to meet with the advisory group despite multiple requests. (This is the same Kathryn Barger who flew around in helicopters paid by taxpayer money to avoid traffic and whose brother is responsible for choosing Trump’s postmaster general.) And despite funding from the settlement years ago, the county has yet to set up mandated air monitoring stations that could detect another blowout.

But when it comes to shutting down Aliso, the county points to the Governor, who, in turns, points to the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Regulatory Laws are Pretty Much Nonexistent

Historically, the PUC was created in 1911 to deregulate utilities and allow for monopoly control.

According to Loretta Lynch, former PUC commissioner, utilities were regulated at the local level before 1900, but then utility companies realized that it would be a lot easier to buy control at the state level. “As to the history, it wasn’t just about controlling myriad local governments versus fewer state governments — it was also about controlling myriad local utility commissions versus only one state commission — for California — you just need to control 3 votes to be able to have your way over a quarter of the state’s economy — energy, telecommunications, railroad and public transportation safety and private water companies,” Lynch said.

This historic (lack of) regulation played out in Aliso Canyon.

According to Matt d’Alessio, Professor of Geologic Science at California State University Northridge (CSUN), “the problem is that the laws were useless.” (Aliso Canyon was also regulated by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the California Energy Commission.)

A third-party root cause analysis found that SoCalGas negligence led to the blowout. The company failed to investigate 40 previous well-casing leaks. And yet, SS-25 passed its 2014 inspection, even though the PUC knew Aliso needed repairs. During a 2014 rate case presentation, SoCalGas presented unsafe conditions of Aliso — including casing corrosion in 15 wells — and both the gas company and the regulator failed to act.

The reopening of Aliso is similarly unsafe.

Under state law, Aliso was not allowed to be used until it was proven safe, but state regulators were allowed to interpret this as they saw fit, reopening Aliso before two studies — one looking into the cause of the accident, and one looking into the risk of earthquakes — were completed.

“The result of both of these studies were incredibly damning and there seems to be no recourse for the community,” Professor Loraine Lundquist, facility associate at the CSUN Sustainability Institute, said. In fact, according to Lundquist, subsurface blowout valves that could stop another blowout are still not required because the gas company successfully lobbied against it.

The reopening of Aliso also allowed for the gas company to pass along repair costs to customers. According to Lynch, PUC’s last-minute approval allowing SoCalGas to withdraw gas-made upgrades to make the facility “used and useful” also allowed the gas company to pass along repair costs to ratepayers.

Ratepayers are also paying billions for pipeline repairs that are taking years — repairs SoCalGas is accused of slow walking in order to drive gas prices up and justify keeping Aliso open. (According to State Senator Henry Stern, who represents the district of Aliso Canyon and who ran on shutting it down, the gas company passes these costs to electricity bills — not to gas bills — in order to support campaigns that electricity is expensive.)

SoCalGas also uses ratepayer money to fund attempts to stall climate goals and their astroturf organization Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions.

“The only people out there looking at those pipelines are [SoCalGas] — maybe an inspector or two, but probably not because regulations are so slack — all we are hearing from is the entity that has money to make by having those lines take forever to repair,” Bill Powers, mechanical engineer and principal of Powers Engineering, said.

The PUC is in the middle of a state-mandated study looking into the feasibility of shutting down Aliso (at the time Governor Jerry Brown called to shut it down in 10 years). However, it’s been three years and the study is still not done. The PUC keeps delaying and delaying.

Instead of looking into how to shut down Aliso Canyon, the PUC is looking at ‘can we shut it down?’ and using hydraulic modeling inputs from the gas company to justify keeping the facility open.

We don’t need Aliso. According to Powers, SoCalGas is creating the idea that their pipelines are unreliable to justify the need for gas storage, when, in reality, if the utility made minor changes to the power grid operating procedures during cold snaps we could have reliable power without gas storage.

If utilities were more thoughtful, they’d pick and choose which power plants to run at any given hour to alleviate the need for gas storage supplies in the SoCalGas system. Instead, utilities let market forces determine what power plants to run based on what’s cheapest, leaving gas storage open to supply these plants closest to the storage fields.

Aliso Canyon is a cash cow for the gas company. Before the blowout, the company sold storage space to other companies — such as BP. According to a 2019 Financial Report, the facility had a net book value of $739 million. The facility is even more valuable now that three coastal gas plants set to shut down are now staying open.

“The Big Picture: we want to keep it open, we want to keep making money off Aliso and we will put forward any argument that allows us to do that,” Powers said.

Jane Fowler at Four Year Anniversary of Aliso Canyon Blowuout. (Photo: Hannah Benet)

The Fossil Fuel Lobby Is a Powerful Force In California

Sempra Energy is a profitable business, earnings are up billions of dollars since this time last year and the company knows how to buy influence. According to Alexandra Nagy, California Director of Food & Water Action, the company spent $24,268,290 on lobbying in California between 2002–2018 — donating to both parties. (Newsom himself took $30,000 in his 2018 gubernatorial run).

The Democratic-led state legislature is so bought out that they could not even get the votes to pass a bill mandating a buffer zone between oil drilling and communities — the three Democratic senators who voted ‘no’ took donations from fossil fuels. State Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-18), especially, whose district shares Aliso Canyon with Senator Henry Stern (D-27), took over $200,000 from the fossil fuel industry and dined privately with executives at Sempra Energy.

According to Senator Stern, there is no political downside to siding with the gas lobby — organizers and groups like Sunrise Movement are starting to make it more uncomfortable with protests, but most politicians haven’t lost their jobs for standing with the fossil fuel industry. “Until people start losing their jobs, and get knocked out for that reason, not a lot is going to change. In fact quite the opposite, if you stand up against the fossil fuel industry, you’re likely not to have a job anymore,” Stern said.

The fossil fuel industry has other ways of creating influence besides money — Newsom, for instance, has connections with Aera energy that span decades. And former Governor Jerry Brown’s sister sat on the board of Sempra Energy (which is why activists claim he didn’t shut down Aliso immediately during the blowout).

According to Steven Weissman, Lecturer at UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and former administrative law judge at the PUC, California is one of the few states where it’s legal to lobby the public utility commission on pending matters. And while anyone can technically lobby them — Sempra Energy spends millions on lobbying and can afford to visit the commission regularly. Sempra has an office right across the street.

And then there are the lavish conferences abroad. The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE) — whose board is made up of executives of Sempra Energy, Shell, Chevron, and even some big green environmental groups — pays out of pocket to fly commissioners and elected officials all over the globe. (Remember Hertzberg? In 2019, CFEE paid him $11,000 to lead a 9-day trip to Switzerland, and he attended a conference in Napa in which leaders can hear from the utility companies themselves about California’s climate plans.)

This is all technically legal because representatives are there as speakers. According to Lynch, these trips were so coveted that the PUC would schedule their public meetings around the CFEE trips, delaying the usual meeting schedule so that Commissioners could be away for multiple weeks.

And then what about the revolving door? The fact that commissioners have taken jobs at utilities and vice versa — former president Michael Peevey started at California Edison before serving as commissioner for 12 years; he stepped down after criticism that he was too lenient with the utility companies.

It’s not just the PUC. The body that regulated fossil fuel production and approved drilling permits — known as DOGGR — was so entangled in fossil fuels that Gavin Newsom fired the head and changed the name and mission.

However, the new agency, California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM) has not proven to be much better. The head of CALGEM is a former Chevron employee who has been accused of fudging numbers on oil and gas permitting. “We believe that the agency itself is still functioning as an arm of the oil and gas industry,” said, Liza Tucker, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog.

But at this point, what isn’t?

Good Branding and No Action amid a Worsening Climate Apocalypse

California is one of the largest emitters of fossil fuel emissions, second only to Texas. 5.5 million people live within a mile of 80,000 active oil and gas wells — which has very serious health impacts — especially on pregnant women and children.

And the state is on fire! Five of the six largest wildfires in California history are happening, at the same time. The climate crisis has arrived in California, and it’s terrifying.

And liberal politicians at the city, state, and federal level have branded themselves as climate leaders while doing very little to address our state’s deep entanglement with fossil fuels.

Mayor Eric Garcetti, a “climate mayor,” is the head of two coalitions of mayors dedicated to stopping climate change at the city level. He promised that 2020 kicked off a decade of climate action for Los Angeles, but that all but vanished from the city. He was too busy focusing on his future cabinet position and Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign to lead our city through the worst air quality in decades, a pandemic, a housing and homelessness crisis, and law enforcement “dominated” by gangs.

According to Astrid Cota, an organizer with People’s City Council Los Angeles, (a group that often supplies direct aid in his absence) 19 unhoused people died during a recent historic heatwave, in part because the Mayor failed to provide accessible cooling shelters.

He all but destroyed our city’s chances of a real Green New Deal, defunding and watering down a climate mobilization department to a single staff position that he then cut from a cop-heavy city budget. (After protest he secured the funding but has yet to fill the position.) His Green New Deal is just a rebranding of his old sustainability plan, which activists point out is not enough: the timelines are too long, and the tool used to calculate emissions for the city is funded by Volkswagen, Chevron, and other interested parties.

At the state level, climate leader Governor Newsom is following a similar pattern of big words and little substantive action. During the historic fires, Newsom announced he would ban combustion cars by 2035 and support a ban on fracking.

While banning combustion cars might sound big — and it does — without any changes to our supply of fossil fuels it might actually be a boon for natural gas because these cars could still be powered by a grid that is predominantly fueled by natural gas. Activists say Newsom could ban fracking today with an executive order, but instead, he handed the job off to a state legislature incapable of getting it done.

But his big words also go along with his big moves to defund environmental protection. Newsom cut the state’s environmental protection budget by 94 percent this year, including dozens of CalGEM regulatory jobs that the fossil fuel industry would have paid for — after the oil industry asked. Not to mention he vetoed a bill that would have undone Trump’s endangered species rollbacks in the state of California.

Most infuriating, perhaps, is the governor’s continual push for Californians to “vote” as a response to the fires, as if we did not have a Democratic supermajority that was already failing. Or maybe his continual, yet empty, smug repetition that climate change is real.

But our leaders are not just greenwashing themselves, they’re greenwashing our energy, spending billions on “renewable natural gas” or biogas which turns methane from cow manure into energy — which is neither cheap nor clean. (Remember that $119.5 million lawsuit with the county and SoCalGas? $26.5 million went towards biogas infrastructure.)

At the federal level, while her state was on fire, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi passed H.R. 4447 — the Clean Energy Jobs and Innovation Act which gives out subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to explore “zero-carbon drilling,” essentially pumping carbon back into wells to pump out more oil. She’s also dismissed the Green New Deal as the “Green Deal or whatever,” all while taking thousands of dollars from the fossil fuel industry.

But don’t worry, she has also tweeted that climate change is real.

Rally for five year anniversary of Aliso Canyon. (Photo: Hannah Benet)

In the wake of what happened in Texas this February, it’s easy to blame the lack of regulation on the Republican Party. But the story of Aliso Canyon is also the story of the failure of Democratic leadership at every level of government. If we are to ensure energy reliability and adapt to an exponential climate crisis, voters will also have to change their ways. And Aliso Canyon is an apt reminder that simply “voting blue” and electing Democrats is not a solution.

Our smooth-talking — or even rambling — leaders will not save us, not unless we demand it.

Five years later, the community affected by Aliso Canyon still demands action. They are exhausted and sick, yes, but community groups such as Save Porter Ranch and Aliso Mom’s Alliance are still organizing, calling elected officials, building power, and even shutting down the facility themselves.

Aliso Canyon represents a choice, not just for our leaders, but for everyone: will we continue to allow our government to poison us, or will we demand our survival? And how?

Join organizations that are fighting to shut down Aliso Canyon: Save Porter Ranch, Aliso Mom’s Alliance and Food & Water Action.

Sign the petition to shut Aliso Canyon down here.