Plugging the well at Aliso Canyon is not the end of the story about the largest methane leak in California history. Porter Ranch residents deserve to know who was responsible for driving thousands of families that endured nosebleeds, vomiting, rashes, and dizziness out of their homes, and why the blowout happened.
Californians need to understand where their government failed them, and Southern California Gas and its regulators must be held accountable.
That’s why the PUC should announce a public investigation into the Aliso Canyon blowout that affected not just Porter Ranch but surrounding communities including Northridge, Chatsworth, and Granada Hills. They should hold their public meeting here in Los Angeles before officials who represent the area and members of affected communities.
Despite 11 investigations and lawsuits started by state and local regulators, and prosecutors, the public still doesn’t have any idea of what happened at Porter Ranch or its implications. That’s because Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency order last month to lock residents and the public out of regulatory investigations until the findings are complete.
When PUC investigations happen in secret, the utilities win and the public pays. After the San Bruno disaster, PG&E was never held accountable for diverting ten million dollars in ratepayer money to fix its pipes to pad executive pay instead. A secret, allegedly illegal deal between then-PUC President Michael Peevey and an SCE executive put 70 percent of the tab, $3.3 billion, for shutting down the defective San Onofre nuclear generating station on ratepayers.
We can’t let that sort of private deal-making between utilities and public officials happen at Aliso Canyon. Any public investigation must reveal all communications between Southern California Gas, its regulators, and the Governor’s Office on Aliso Canyon’s blowout.
Nagging questions area residents have about their health must be answered. Corporations routinely downplay the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals like benzene that can cause leukemia and anemia. At Porter Ranch, SoCalGas called it an “oversight” that it had not told the Associated Press that it had found 10 instances, and not just a few, in a one-week period in November where benzene had exceeded the maximum standard that the California EPA sets for chronic exposure. But other organizations, like the World Health Organization, say there is no such thing as “safe” when it comes to benzene.
The PUC’s investigation should take a look at whether we need Aliso Canyon at all since locating such massive storage facilities in the laps of dense urban communities is too great a risk. At Aliso Canyon, the PUC approved a $200 million ratepayer-funded project for SoCal Gas to upgrade a compressor station so higher volumes of natural gas could be injected into creaky wells that are half a century old or more and likely to have no safety valves, just like the well just plugged.
The PUC also approved new gas-powered electricity generating stations in Southern California to replace power lost at Aliso Canyon. The two decisions are linked. SoCalGas wants to stuff Aliso Canyon as full as possible to feed Southern California Edison and make more money. That project should be put on hold instead of risking yet more blowouts.
California should launch a far broader conversation about why we aren’t phasing away from greenhouse gas emitting electricity generation more quickly and towards the new standard of 50 percent of our electricity coming from renewable power. Are we simply allowing utilities to buy natural gas cheap, inject it into shoddy storage facilities, and sell it high at ratepayer expense to boost executive bonuses?
SoCal Gas has already launched a PR campaign to challenge those who want to shut down Aliso Canyon permanently via a “factsheet” on the storage facility. They claim that it is critical to “reliability.” The company is frightening residents by claiming that the loss of natural gas storage to supply generating stations “could ultimately lead to supply shortages and possibly electricity blackouts” for everyone from residential customers to hospitals to technology companies.
Don’t be fooled. New natural gas-fired plants only impede the pace of our transition to renewable energy by ignoring more robust construction of battery plants that can store energy generated by the sun but don’t threaten people. The new plants put off the development of geothermal heat in Imperial County to power turbines. It is time to put Californians’ health and safety first. A public investigation into Aliso Canyon is the first step.
Liza Tucker blogs at CapitolWatchdog.org and directs Consumer Watchdog’s Toxics Project.