Incompetent, Corrupt, or Impotent: How public agencies mishandled the Aliso Canyon disaster in the San Fernando Valley
(recap of part 9: A look at more issues regarding the health study, including the revelation that bins of hazardous materials had been sitting on the Aliso site.)
SETBACK IN GETTING DRILLING SETBACKS
A bill that would require setbacks between oil and gas wells and schools, playgrounds, and other locations where children would be present stalled in a California state senate committee in August. AB-345 had passed in the Assembly in January, but since then had been watered down by amendments.
Besides setbacks to protect children, other minimum setbacks for other buildings, including houses and hospitals, would also be established. In addition, it would require the establishment of an environmental justice program at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM).
The public comments came from several environmentalists as well as residents from the area affected by Aliso Canyon. On the other side, union workers from the gas and oil industry also flooded the senate’s line. It would be interesting to know how much more time the anti side received, despite the committee’s claim to keep the discussion balanced.
But when it came to the vote, three of the four “no” votes at the Natural Resources and Water Committee hearing were from Democrats; each of whom had received money from fossil fuel companies.
According to Jacobin Magazine, the action to stop this bill was due to “big money from Big Oil and industry-tied unions” Much of the written and oral comments against this bill were from these companies and unions.Opposition to the bill included the Californians for Energy Independence, Kern Citizens for Energy, and Concerned Mineral Owners of California, all astroturf groups run by the Western State Petroleum Association. In fact, the Concerned Mineral Owners’ website was paid for by the Californians for Energy Independence.
One of the Democrats, Ben Hueso, called the legislation a “waste of time” and a “publicity stunt” by environmental justice groups. According to a Sierra Club’s list of lawmakers, he had received $88, 500 from “dirty donors” in 2019 and 2020.
For his run for the San Diego County of Supervisors, a lobbying firm donated $90,000 to an independent expenditure effort on his behalf. He ended up losing that election in November.
Two others who voted against the bill, Republican Andreas Borgeas and Democrat Bob Hertzberg went on an industry-funded trip in April 2019 convened by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE) during which climate solutions pushed by the fossil fuel industry were the main topics. The board of directors of the CFEE include members representing companies and organizations such as Chevron, Shell, Western States Petroleum Association, Marathon Petroleum, and others.
The third Democrat who voted against the bill was Anna Caballero, who tried to justify her vote in a Fresno Bee op-ed. She said, “There is a state agency already creating rules to regulate oil and gas production setbacks.” But further on in the piece, she said she was against the bill, “because AB 345 risked killing jobs.”
Two activists who gave public comment in Sacramento in favor of the bill received a tongue lashing by Hertzberg. One of them, Katie Valenzuela, Director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, called out the senator on his condescension.
Hertzberg and other senators who voted against the bill claimed that the state regulatory agencies were looking at the issue of setbacks. That was true, but that process only started earlier in 2020 and the rulemaking may take a while to happen. In the meantime, communities near oil and gas facilities will continue to get dosed with harmful chemicals.
Some communities have looked at instituting setbacks. One was Ventura County. The Board of Supervisors passed a law instituting a 2,500 feet buffer from schools, 1,500 from residential buildings. Any new well had to follow the new rules, even if the company had old permits for the new drilling site. But the Oil industry responded with lawsuits. Another action was using an astroturf group Families for Jobs and Energy, which was funded by Aera Energy and the California Independent Petroleum Association, according to its website. Paid petitioners gathered signatures in person, despite the pandemic, for a special election. In the meantime, the new regulations were placed on hold.
Around this time, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission passed a 2,000 setback. Then Boulder County decided on a stricter 2,500 feet from homes, schools and daycare facilities.
Los Angeles was considering establishing setbacks from oil and gas facilities with a motion introduced on April 19, 2017 to consider the health impacts. The motion was passed with some modifications, instructing the Petro Administrator and the City Attorney, LA Co Dept of Public Health and other city departments and health agencies to contribute to a report which was released in July 2019.
The City Council Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice, and River Committee considered a motion regarding land use codes in connection with Health Impacts and oil and gas wells and drill sites during the course of a few meetings in late 2020. One issue was whether the city had the authority to require these buffers, but the City Attorney’s office did acknowledge they did, but admitted that any zoning ordinance like this will likely result in litigation. Something that kept some council members from jumping onto the setback wagon.
Understandably, strong opinions on both sides of the issue were expressed at the committee meetings as well as through submitted written comments. Many residents asked for a strong buffer ordinance between the oil and gas facilities and their homes and schools to protect their community’s health. Those expressing opposition were union workers in the fossil fuel industries. What was obvious with the many written comments sent in opposition was similar or even exact language.
The ordinance seems to be in city council limbo after being referred to three other committees; Arts, Parks, Health, Education and Neighborhoods; Budget and Finance; and Planning and Land Use.
Setbacks were mentioned during hearings given by Cal-GEM during the first part of the year, when residents were asked for input into possible rulemaking regarding oil and gas facilities. These workshops were held to “shape new rules that better protect health and the environment near oil production,” according to a Cal-GEM email sent to the public.
Among issues that were brought up during the pre-COVID in-person meetings and the remote hearings were health issues that are caused by proximity of production and storage facilities near communities. Many of the concerns echoed those felt by residents who were affected by the Aliso site, including carcinogenic, endocrine disruptors, and other toxic emissions, as well as the greenhouse gases that add to climate change conditions.
ANOTHER LEAK, BUT IN THE EAST VALLEY
In 2017, Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers discovered a methane plume rising in Sun Valley during an aerial survey. Three years later, the same team realized the leak had been worsening in subsequent surveys, coming from the Valley Generating Station (VGS) in Sun Valley.
Constructed in 1953 by the LA Dept. of Water and Power (DWP), the VGS was powered by gas and steam turbines to provide electricity for the city. It underwent a restoration, which started in 2001 and finished in 2004.
But DWP general manager Martin Adams revealed to commissioners in August that the plant had been leaking methane gas for at least three years. The announcement was made after word spread about the surveys showing an increasing plume.
After finding out about the leak, the City Council introduced a group of motions. The most recent motion was to study the feasibility of decommissioning the facility and asked DWP to come up with a timeline. Health effects would also be part of the study.
Nine residents who live near the station and a nonprofit group Pueblo y Salud jointly filed a lawsuit in December against DWP alleging that it failed to fix a methane gas leak that was known for more than three years. In addition, the management failed to inform the public about the problem. The suit claimed that the leak caused residents to suffer negative impacts, including health effects. According to the Daily News, a class action suit was filed against the DWP and the City of Los Angeles on February 2, 2021.
Members of DWP’s management team said they did not believe the emissions posed a health risk to its employees and, therefore, decided not to inform the community. This message was reminiscent of the continued claims by SoCalGas that its Aliso facility’s blowout didn’t harm the North Valley residents. In fact, one of the plaintiff attorneys works for one of the firms which represent Aliso area residents.
On January 7, 2021, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) gave the DWP a notice of violation for the leak, which can result in fines, as well as civil and criminal suits.
LOSS OF A WHISTLEBLOWER?
A little more than a year after Ken Harris was fired as the head of Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR; now CalGEM), another top official lost her job at a state regulatory agency. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) commissioners fired executive director Alice Stebbins on August 31st, claiming that she used unethical hiring practices, while she insisted that her firing was retaliation for whistleblowing.
A state investigation said that some of her former co-workers from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the State Water Resources Control Board were hired over more qualified candidates.
Stebbins insisted she lost her position for revealing that the agency failed to collect $200-million in fees from utilities. Furthermore, she claimed that Pacific Gas &Electric and AT&T were behind the push to oust her.
During a virtual meeting in which the Commission President Marybel Batjer listed the complaint before Stebbins presented her response. Then the commissioners voted 5–0 to dismiss her.
Stebbins and her legal team cited a number of text messages that were sent among the commissioners that indicated they had made up their mind before the hearing. One of her attorneys pointed out that the pre-hearing discussions violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act.
In December Stebbins filed a lawsuit against the CPUC, claiming she was fired because of her investigations into the agency’s financial and record-keeping practices.
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: The Why
A major battle being fought in this country, and especially in California, has been the use of building codes to move off of the use of methane gas into a 100 percent sustainable future. On one side were those pushing for bans on gas hook ups in new buildings and on the other side were the gas utilities and companies. For many of those living in the shadows of Aliso, decreasing demand for the use of methane gas was a hopeful sign that regulators would, at one point, feel that the existence of the storage site will no longer be considered required for energy reliability.
One reason behind the decarbonization movement away from the use of methane gas in the home concerns the ways that this fossil fuel can be harmful. According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Physicians for Social Responsibility, Mothers Out Front, and the Sierra Club, the byproducts produced by gas appliances are a major source of indoor air pollution. Research showed that “the pollutants released by gas stoves can have negative health effects, often exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma.” Elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide, for example, may produce many health effects, including asthma, learning deficits, and cardiovascular effects in children.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released a study in 2014 that suggested that up to 12 million Californians can be routinely exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels and 1.7 million to carbon monoxide levels that can exceed ambient air standards levels in a typical winter week.
A UCLA study in November 2019 studied how building decarbonization will create new jobs. Its finding: “By 2045, assuming the state has achieved full building electrification, there could be an additional 12,400 full-time electricity generation and distribution jobs and 5,400–6,800 fewer full-time gas distribution jobs.” The report added, “In total, building electrification in California could support an average of 64,200–104,100 jobs annually, after accounting for losses in the gas industry.”
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: The Where
In California, ordinances regarding building codes aimed at decarbonizing are often called reach codes, in that they “reach” beyond the state minimum requirements for energy use in building design and construction. These codes create opportunities for local governments to lead the way on clean air, climate solutions, and the renewable energy economy, while creating roadmaps for other local governments to take action as well. The intended result is to increase energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and meet climate action goals.
One of the first cities to ban gas hook ups in new buildings in 2019, Berkeley faced a lawsuit by the California Restaurant Association. But cities are continuing to pursue these ordinances that will cut down on emissions.
According to the Sierra Club, by December 2020, over 50 cities and counties across California are considering policies to support all-electric new construction. In the last few months of the year, these included Sunnyvale, Millbrae, Los Altos, and East Palo Alto.
In November, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban natural gas in new buildings to be built in the county. San Francisco had already banned natural gas for any new city-owned building.
In December 2020, San Jose updated its building code on the same day that Oakland became the 40th community in California to commit to phasing out gas and requiring all newly constructed buildings to be all-electric.
And at the January 12, 2021, Santa Barbara City Council meeting, this city came closer to joining the ever-growing list of cities jumping on the all-electric bandwagon by okaying an exploration into this issue. A large group of organizations signed a letter in support of the motion.
Before this meeting, some local residents reported receiving a text referring them to the C4BES website to find out how to contest the motion. Some of those in attendance at the meeting mentioned the spam texts.
Many of the cities removing gas as an energy source are joining energy collectives such as the Clean Power Alliance, which doesn’t use natural gas, biomass, coal, or nuclear.
Irvine sought participation by its neighboring cities in the Orange County Power Authority. This is considered a Community Choice Energy program, which is a public electric utility service intended to lower costs for residents through investments in renewable energy. The arrangement bands cities together to buy and sell energy through an agency in which representatives from each participating municipality will serve on a board of directors.
Lake Forest, Buena Park, Fullerton, and Huntington Beach agreed to join this program.
Communities in other states were also looking into passing electrification codes. A recent battleground in the war to move off of the use of gas was in Bellingham, Washington. Its city council was considering a new ordinance that would ban new gas hooks in new buildings as well as require conversions to electric heating when existing homes are sold to new owners.
In response, a coalition of energy companies funded a $1-million public relations campaign to push gas. Among the strategies employed by the Partnership for Energy Progress, was the use of scare tactics to persuade homeowners that a full conversion from gas to electricity could cost as much as $82,000. This coalition insisted that the use of gas was necessary for addressing climate change, and that converting waste materials into “renewable natural gas,” was a “clean energy source.”
In the end, the planned ordinance was altered to allow the use of gas cooking appliances for the time being, but requires the conversion to electric heat pumps by 2040.
South of Bellingham, the Seattle City Council in August passed a Green New Deal resolution that established a goal of making the city climate pollution-free by 2030.
On December 15th, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that Washington will be considering The Healthy Homes & Clean Buildings bill to help the state achieve the established commitment to reduce emission by 95% by 2050. Among the requirements of the bill: any new buildings constructed in or after 2030 must be zero carbon, with no gas used for space and water heating; strengthen state building codes to incentivize electric appliances over gas, and put the state on a path for 100% decarbonization by 2050. The state House’s Environmental and Energy Committee passed HR-1084. Currently it is now with the Appropriations Committee.
The other side of the coin is that some places had passed bills to protect the gas industry, including states such as Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: Los Angeles City
As for the city of Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a plan for a Green New Deal in April 2019. Ten months later, it was announced that all new or major retrofitted municipal buildings in the city will be carbon free. This decision was part of a set of sustainability measures.
One measure was the Executive Directive, which addressed building design in new buildings and major renovations of municipal buildings, calling for “maximizing deployment of energy efficiency, smart design, on-site renewable generation, and electrification” in order to reach carbon neutrality by 2030. Included in the directive was the Buy Clean California Act, which provides guidelines for building materials.
The city formed a partnership with other cities in the US and internationally as part of the C40’s Deadline 2020 pilot program to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group consists of 96 cities, representing one twelfth of the world’s population. Its mission is focused on tackling climate change while increasing the health, well being and economic opportunities of urban citizens.
Los Angeles is also part of The Building Decarbonization Coalition, which was founded to develop zero-emissions homes and buildings in California. One way it suggested achieving the goals of cutting emissions, saving on energy bills improving public health, and helping developers avoid the need for gas hookups, was through the use of highly efficient electric appliances such as heat pumps, hot water heaters and induction stoves.
Knowing that one of the ploys from groups such as SoCalGas was to push the idea of using gas stoves, the Coalition obtained endorsements from chefs such as Curtis Stone, who had been using induction cooktops for years and felt electric cooking is faster, cleaner, more efficient, and more accurate than gas stoves. Other chefs in luxury restaurants were also making the switch.
A set of programs created for the city was the Los Angeles Better Buildings Challenge, whose goal is to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings, from retrofitting City-owned facilities and affordable housing stock, to working with the private sector to support financing of energy efficiency and water efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings.
But while Garcetti attempted to position himself as a “green mayor” for his future endeavors (as in running for president), the city council hasn’t exactly been jumping on the decarbonization bandwagon as indicated in a poll taken by the LA Times climate writer Sammy Roth.
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: California
What would certainly expedite more movement toward moving off of the use of fossil fuels, which in turn would help end the use of Aliso, can be done at the state level. The California Energy Commission (CEC) updates Title 24 of the state building code every three years. The 2019 versions went into effect January 1, 2020. The next iteration, which will come out in 2022, is in the process of being decided at the present time.
In January 2019, the CPUC initiated a rule instituting investigation order R.19–01–011 into revising building codes. Among the goals were creating pilot programs to address new construction in areas damaged by wildfires, aligning the CPUC policies with Title 24 and Title 20 standards, and establishing a building decarbonization policy framework.
A presentation that was given as part of this rulemaking docket described how different programs were being planned for new buildings, especially in fire-damaged communities. For example, in Sonoma and Mendocino countries that were especially hit hard in 2017, Sonoma Clean Power is partnering with Pacific Gas & Electric and the Bay Area AQMD to incentivize homeowners to rebuild energy-efficient homes as part of a pilot program.
As expected, utilities, companies involved with energy, and environmental groups requested becoming a party to the decarbonization proceeding. One group turned out to be Californians for Balanced Energy (C4BES). The Sierra Club and Earthjustice saw through this group’s existence, and challenged its right to take part with a flurry of briefs, while SoCalGas tried to act innocent. Eventually the astroturf group filed a motion to withdraw its party status in August 2019.
On June 25, 2020, the CPUC issued a ruling reiterating that C4BES will not be involved in the rulemaking, but in addition, the group was ordered to cite this ruling in any future proceeding.
Currently, the decarbonization investigation is in phase II of this rulemaking, with some parties filing for intervenor compensation for their involvement in participating in these regulatory procedures of public interest, before the next workshop.
The CPUC opened another rulemaking, R20–01–007 on January 17, 2020, regarding the regulation of the state’s transition from the use of gas, mainly addressing ratepayer costs and other financial issues.
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: The U.S.
With a new president who’s not a climate denier, there was more hope among environmentalists toward more efforts to fight climate change on the federal level.
Among goals listed in the 2020 Democratic platform related to the environment, included requiring stricter methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations, pushing for more rigorous fuel economy standards, protecting public lands, banning new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters, investing in clean energy and innovation, and establishing a new research agency focused on accelerating climate technologies.
Regarding building codes, a goal is to create incentives for retrofitting buildings for electric appliances as well as on-site clean power generation.
Two months before the election, a group of 140 environmental organizations signed on to a letter to Biden, asking him to eschew including fossil fuel proponents from involvement in his administration.
But in the waning days of the Trump administration, the Department of Energy threw a wrench into the movement to eventually move off of gas. In a move favored by the American Gas Association, the department withdrew a proposed regulation that will require less efficient gas heating appliances to use noncondensing venting. The National Consumer Law Center called it an “anti-consumer rule that effectively keeps inefficient gas furnaces, water heaters and boilers on the market.”
In the first month of office, President Biden has issued some executive orders, including one that would reenter the United States into the Paris Accord.
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: Calls of Support
Among the calls of support for requiring new buildings to be all electric came from a LA Times editorial on October 19, 2020. The piece pointed out that it would cost residents more to retrofit their homes in the future when fossil gas is finally phrased out. That the governor, who had just signed an executive order about barring the sale of gasoline-fueled cars after 2035, could issue an order also phasing out gas appliances. The Times staff referred to the RMI report on gas appliance-caused health problems.
Also showing support was CARB, which voted to support all-electric building policies, based on research showing that indoor air pollution spewed by stoves and other gas appliances can contribute to health problems, including asthma and heart disease.
One company Ecotope, which develops all-electric heating systems, countered claims by pro-gas supporters by pointing out that once heat pumps are installed, they can dramatically reduce the cost of heating. “You can certainly design with heat pumps and end up with a lower bill for space and water heating,” said Jonathan Heller, of the Seattle-based company, which develops all-electric heating systems.
Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, was joined by a coalition of businesses including Ikea, McDonalds, Nike, and Starbucks, to advocate for an all-electric building code. The letter to the California Energy Commission said that this was needed to “maximizing progress in the building sector and avoid locking-in carbon-intensive buildings for decades.”
The Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies is also in support of moving toward 100 per cent sustainability as seen in a video produced for the Aliso 5th Anniversary Commemoration. According to its executive director V. John White, “Architects and builders are starting to look at electrification of buildings as a strategy for saving money as well as decreasing liability.” He added, “By substituting other technologies, by managing our demand more aggressively, and by using more renewables and more storage on the electric system, we think we can gradually and orderly phase out the use of Aliso Canyon.”
In a November 3, 2020, editorial commemorating the 5th anniversary of the blowout, the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s Michael Jerrett, and the UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions’ Diane A. Garcia-Gonzales, suggested that considering methane gas as a “bridge fuel” from coal towards renewable energy, “may not, after all, be a step closer to a safer climate.” They further stated, “While the state slowly crawls over the bridge towards renewables, we must ensure the transitions occurs equitably and that communities do not bear unfair burdens as we move closer to a renewable energy future.”
THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: How SoCalGas is fighting back
Because of AB-1257, the California Energy Commission was required to produce a report every four years that would push strategies to maximize the benefits of the use of natural gas. Among the companies, cities, and organizations sending in written support of the bill in 2013, many had received donations from SoCalGas during the next year, totaling almost $294,000. This included business organizations, a city, companies that are involved with natural gas and renewable gas, and nonprofits such as Breathe California, American Lung Association, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. Many of these groups currently have a SoCalGas manager on their boards of directors.
In early August 2020 SoCalGas filed a suit against the commission, saying that it failed to promote natural gas in its 2019 Integrated Energy Policy Report (IEPR) as specified in AB-1257. It claimed that the 22-page appendix to the energy policy document wouldn’t suffice to fulfill the requirement of the law. Also joining as a plaintiff is the Clean Energy Fuels Corp, a company that runs methane gas fueling stations, and chapters of a union that represents more than 4,000 SoCalGas employees.
But the commission responded that the appendix did “meet the requirements of Assembly Bill 1257.”
Another lawsuit by the California Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition was filed against the California Air Resources Board. This lawsuit seeks to overturn the newly approved “advanced clean trucks” rule, which is aimed at putting 300,000 zero-emission trucks on the road by 2035.
These lawsuits come at a time when SoCalGas was already feeling the pressure of the movement to ban gas hookups in new buildings and led to the utility creating the astroturf group C4BES the year before to make it seem there was grassroots support for the continued use of gas.
As mentioned in part 4 of my series, SoCalGas used C4BES as one method to get signatures on a letter to Governor Newsom asking for the continued use of fossil gas, as well as sending gas company representatives to local meetings throughout the state making presentations starting in June 2018.
These managers urged city and county governments, local associations, and chambers of commerce to support the use of “balanced energy solutions” (in other words, support the continued use of gas in buildings). Many times, a pre-drafted “balanced energy” resolution was given to city councils for this purpose.
When the Redondo Beach city council was asked to pass such a resolution, one council member wondered how it was placed on the agenda when other motions, sought by council members, won’t always make the agenda. During the course of discussion, one Redondo Beach resident Chris Gilbride gave public comment in favor of the resolution, but didn’t identify himself further as the director of media relations and public information for SoCalGas. The council voted it down 4–1.
As noted in the section THE DECARBONIZATION BATTLE: The Where, several Santa Barbara residents were sent a text message to check out the C4BES website so that they can email a pro-gas message to the city council.
The astroturf group even tried to lobby in areas outside of California. During an October webinar sponsored by the Northwest Gas Association, the executive director of C4BES issued a warning. “Natural gas is under an existential threat that is sustained and will only become more acute,” Jon Switalski said, showing social media videos from his campaign with the tagline: “Want to keep your gas stove? Join us …”
Northwest environmentalists countered that message. “The idea that gas has a role in our transition is just misguided and dangerous,” said Alec Connon, with 350 Seattle. “It’s a classic case of putting profit over people and the planet.”
Another ploy, per an article by the LA Times’ Sammy Roth, involved pushing the idea that methane gas would be better for communities of color, even though the use of fossil fuels harms the health of residents because of the components, include nitrogen oxides released by gas appliances, as well as the overall effect on climate change. One ally for the pro-gas cause was a former member of the CPUC, who was appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Timothy Alan Simon, who currently is the chair of the board of the California African American Chamber of Commerce, and a SoCalGas consultant, had published many pro-gas columns, as well as appears regulary on the Black News Channel. While complaining about the California Public Advocates looking into the gas company for its lobbying efforts, he doesn’t mention the adverse health effects on people.
Both the LA Times and Mother Jones had obtained correspondence among gas executives discussing how to fight the threat to their industry from local ordinances and state laws that could lead to decreased demand for gas. These executives know that the more is known about health effects from the use of fossil fuel gas, the worse it is for their profits.
But because of these thinly veiled efforts of the gas company to protect their product, the Public Advocates office of the CPUC asked in November 2020, that SoCalGas be fined for its use of ratepayer money while fighting the implementation of energy efficiency rules and gas bans. In its Order to Show Cause brief, the independent office recommended the gas company be fined $255 million, stating, “SoCalGas has engaged in a concerted effort to undermine the state’s energy efficiency goals related to new codes and standards, which in turn undermines the state’s climate goals.”
In its brief, the Public Advocates gave examples of how SoCalGas had misused ratepayer money. When the Santa Monica City Council was considering motions regarding reach codes, three SoCalGas employees, a senior public affairs manager, a policy and planning manager, and an environmental policy advisor, showed up to speak up in opposition. These positions were funded by ratepayer funds. According to the Public Advocates office, the CPUC policy is that ratepayer funds can only be used to advocate for more stringent codes and standards.
Five SoCalGas employees attended a San Luis Obispo City Council meeting, but switched the accounting code for one of the employee’s salary. The company also recorded $10,000 in consulting costs against a shareholder-funded account for preparing for the meeting, which according to the brief, acknowledged opposing reach codes activities should not be funded by ratepayers.
The brief also said the utility had given money to various trade organizations, including the American Gas Association, in order to push for policies to protect its bottom line. The donations and dues paid to these groups can be tracked through the annual GO-77M reports. Here’s the 2019 report released in 2020, but previous years can be found through the use of Google.
The Sierra Club, among other groups, said the utility’s actions were inappropriately funded by ratepayer dollars and designed to subvert efforts to fight climate change. SoCalGas responded that it has a “long history of supporting energy efficiency in California.” But the environmental group asked for fines, when collected, to be invested into the state building electrification programs.
It will be up to the CPUC to decide if SoCalGas will be fined.
Another questionable aspect the Public Advocates office was looking at, according to Politico California, was a partnership between SoCalGas and the Imprenta Communication Group to gain support from Latin and Asian American politicians for trucks fueled by methane gas. This campaign was known as “Advanced Clean Trucks Now,” and involved the public affairs firm in writing gas-friendly remarks for politicians, giving campaign contributions, and sending speakers to public meetings.
A recent Mother Jones article discussed how one Imprenta account executive pretended to be a Culver City resident while trying to start a pro-gas discussion on the NextDoor app.
That February 2021 article outlined the various ways the gas industry had been promoting the use of methane gas in homes, going back many decades. For example, during the 1960s, full page ads will be taken out in newspapers featuring “articles’ touting the benefits of switching to central air conditioning, which used gas, and how celebrities preferred cooking with gas interspersed with smaller ads for local appliance stores plugging gas ranges.
The same article also brought up how social media “influencers” were being paid to push the use of methane gas. One lifestyle influencer gushed about her gas-fueled fireplace, but probably didn’t realize how much criticism she would receive from her followers for using the fossil fuel. One has to think of how those working for her benefactor, the American Public Gas Association (AGPA), would think if they saw some of her posts showing the electric stove she uses for her cooking.
According to Vice, the “Natural Gas Genius” campaign developed by public relations firm Porter-Novelli on behalf of the APGA ran counter to another Porter-Novelli campaign directed toward women and climate justice. But any questions asked of the PR group were instead directed toward its main office instead, and not fully answered.
As for the campaign itself, the AGPA website described it as “refreshing, sassy and right on target with this target audience.” The style guide for the campaign gave specific directions on how to present the social media posts right down to typestyle, photography, and even phasing of comments. One of the unwritten taboos undoubtedly was not bringing up the nitrogen oxides and other chemicals emitted into one’s kitchen through the use of “cooking with gas.”
Just as with the dilemma faced by the tobacco industry in pushing cigarettes while the evidence of health effects from smoking were becoming known, the gas industry is now facing the same conundrum in trying to downplay the effects from their product in order to protect their bottom line.
(coming up in Part 11, residents commemorate the 5th anniversary of the blowout, updates given on CPUC investigations and the upcoming Aliso civil trial)