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To Live or Die in LA

A Map of Methane Levels Near the Massive Gas Leak in L.A. October 2015


ACCORDING TO LIZ - Last Thursday, on the eve of the Labor Day weekend, the infamous California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the same folks that recently brought San Francisco 24/7 commercial use of potentially murderous self-driving taxis, channeled their corporate-profit driven insensitivity south to Los Angeles and approved allowing the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas) to increase its storage at its Aliso Canyon facility by over 60%, from 41.2 billion cubic feet to 68.6 billion cubic feet.

This is less than two years after the CPUC, over vociferous opposition by residents and environmentalists had allowed a 20% expansion from what was originally approved when the facility reopened three years earlier, again leaving many at Porter Ranch feeling betrayed and fearing for the safety of their families.

The Disaster

Back in October of 2015, one of the SoCal Gas storage wells in Aliso Canyon started leaking methane, benzene and other toxic chemicals into the San Fernando Valley. This lasted almost four months, added more than 150 million pounds of methane to the atmosphere, probably exceeded the carbon footprint of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout, harmed the health of homeowners, their children and pets, and forced the evacuation of 8,000 Angelenos.

Public pressure forced a shutdown for the next two years. However, in 2018 state agencies under Jerry Brown allowed SoCal Gas to reopen, but limited the facility to under 34 billion cubic feet of gas, less than half of what is now permitted.

Opposition to the very existence of gas at the site has continued to grow. And is supported by people and politicians from the local level all the way to Washington.

Those living nearby and hundreds of thousands of other Angelenos want SoCal Gas to permanently shutter its Aliso Canyon operation, and the governments’ regulatory agencies to require mandatory remediation and rigorous oversight of the property.

Newsom campaigned on shutting this dangerous facility down permanently.

Full closure has been wending its way through the labyrinthine corridors of Sacramento for years. Senate Bill 1486 would have put a moratorium on the use of Aliso Canyon for gas storage and set a shutdown timeline of no later than 2027, but the bill was watered down and then pronounced dead in 2022.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) now wants to expand storage use to potentially dangerous limits, and delay closure until 2035 – how many more blowouts, how much more suffering and losses will local residents have to endure?

The Sacramento Bee reported SoCal Gas as spending over $36 million of customer payments over four years lobbying politicians to curtail policies that targeted global warming by the fossil fuel industry.

Those profiting from the Aliso Canyon enterprise certainly have the money and motivation to fight both its permanent shut down and attendant costs necessary to ensure the public is forever protected from its toxic remains.

Depleted after years as an active gas field, the facility was converted to storage 50 years ago. But the 115 wells were not all adequately sealed and the pressure of the stored gas caused the 2015 blowout.

Furthermore, safety valves on the well that blew, as well as on many others, had been removed in 1979 because they were old and… leaking. And not replaced.

The Commissioners and all those involved who are touting how magnanimous they are and how wonderful this decision will be for California consumers, have taken this extremely myopic stand based solely on consumer complaints about increased gas bills last winter, and refuse to take a holistic view of the situation.

Yes, bills were high last winter and consumers complained, but all energy costs are on the rise and will only go higher as humans face balancing energy needs with planetary survival.

People who go out of their way to “help” others never entirely forget their own interests. Who stand to profit here?

How effective are the mechanical failsafes and other “safety” improvements that residents don’t trust will protect their homes and schools?

And, given known incursions into the operation of utilities across the United States, even greater dangers are possible if electronic elements are hacked.

Existing equipment is dated and poorly maintained and strengthening the infrastructure will not come cheap nor will decommissioning but the lives and health of nearby residents should come before the profits of SoCal Gas and its parent company, Sempra Energy, before politicians and others receiving payouts – aboveboard or under the table – and even before reducing utility bills.

The Actors

As a subsidiary of a Fortune 500 corporation, SoCal Gas is all about profit.

They jumped on the bandwagon of natural gas being “renewable” because they could appeal to people concerned about global warming while using existing infrastructure and maintaining demand for its product to ensure happy stockholders. Meanwhile, customers burn just another form of fossil fuel and delay switching to less toxic appliances.

The company stores gas at Aliso Canyon, bought when rates are low in summer for distribution to customers, including power generators for California’s electric grid, in winter.

Whether SoCalGas profited from the development of family homes on the adjacent property, be through those in-the-know capitalizing on foreknowledge of the deal-making or simply ignoring the danger that the gas storage posed to prospective homeowners, is moot.

Their operation is and forever will be a clear and present danger. Just because it was going to be expensive to properly shut down, does not give them the right to continue to put their neighbors at risk.

And no individual should be able to hide behind a corporate veil or government appointment. Choices made by people who ignore adequate protection and maintenance or approve expansion at Aliso Canyon are criminal actors. If the results are deaths, the charges should be murder, deliberate murder, because there are risks and consequences of which they are assuredly aware of in making such a decision.

The more money that’s involved the more likely decisions will be made that are bad for the rest of us.

Aliso Canyon needs more gas storage like we need more plagues and more wars to cull the population.

Public comments on Aliso Canyon during multiple meetings called for closure, but the CPUC ignored the community yet again to side with irresponsible and greedy fossil fuel interests.

Andrea Vega of Food & Water Watch Southern California Organizer pointed out that: “There can be no transparency in this process when the commissioners make these decisions behind closed doors. Only a transparent process on Aliso Canyon will ensure that those who make decisions that can affect the health of our communities will be held accountable.”

Especially when Commissioners are known to have ties to companies over which they have previously ruled, i.e. one served as managing council for Cruise up until 18 months before the fateful decision that let robo-taxis loose on the streets of San Francisco, a decision that may have already contributed to a death.

If the Commissioners, none of whom currently resides in the Porter Ranch area, want to pursue this decision, they should be forced to move there with all their family members and make continued full-time residency a condition of this and all future decisions about the SoCal Gas Aliso Canyon facility until it is forever closed.

Each State Senator of the Government of California represents almost a million constituents and every Assembly member a little under a half million on 2023 salaries of $122,694. Sitting in Sacramento, they are far more accessible to a concentration of paid lobbyists than to most of their constituents.

In recent years we’ve seen how frequently they’ve let developers lead them by the nose; how is this any different?

With the escalation of gas and electric bills last year and many power generation plants dependent on natural gas, people’s self-interest has played into the hands of the industry profiteers.

And our politicians are depending on that to keep their re-election kitties topped up.

The old “people made us do it...” excuse.

From 1982 to 1989, members of the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Tom Bradley accepted $245,000 in campaign contributions from The Porter Ranch Development Company.

Environmental impact reports, maps, letters and supplements released at the time make no obvious references to the massive natural gas storage facility just a mile away from the project site.

Los Angeles politicians are like those in Sacramento on steroids with, in addition, a long history of corruption and under-the-table deals, especially with regards to development.

Current owners, the Toll Brothers, undoubtedly lobbied City Hall as they continue expanding luxury developments on the property.

For over ten years, lobbyists for the oil and gas companies have obstructed safety set-backs demanded by Angelenos demonstrating their access to porously-moral Councilmembers.

Probably where they forged their connections with the mostly unlamented Herb Wesson who gladly accepted donations from dozens of fossil fuel profiteers while running for the County Board of Supervisors.

Jan Perry, who was running for the same seat called him out: “…with the existential threat of climate change looming over us, it's unconscionable for any Democratic candidate to take money from big oil.”

But Wesson did. Including from The Thermo Company, one of the parties deemed responsible for the Porter Ranch leak.

Before anything proceeds on the Aliso Canyon storage expansion and if they can’t stop it, we need to ensure that our City Councilmembers have the balls and teeth to publicly hold every person of every entity involved personally responsible for the entirety of damages, all injuries and every death.

Last but certainly not least, is the Los Angeles Consumer who must hold the City Council accountable.

They are the ones caught in the Catch-22 of extreme weather conditions that have become exponentially more frequent with rising global temperatures demanding increased energy use.

This means customers may face another winter of blackouts and high costs. But doubling down on fossil fuels that exacerbate extreme weather just doesn’t make sense.

SoCal Gas, the CPUC, the State and the City all shoulder responsibility for the lives and health of their customers and constituents.

But responsibility also holds true for consumers.

I’m all in favor of a government that ensures a living wage, safe housing, proper healthcare, affordable medications, a decent education and sufficient healthy food.

Some may see this as interference in the profiteering of corporate interests who have already paid off people at different levels of government to ensure their ability to extract the maximum profit out of those who have the least ability to stand up against them.

I don’t.

Government is supposed to be an advocate for the people.                                                        

But I also believe that people have the personal responsibility to curb their energy use, to install insulation and weather stripping, to install LED lights, to keep doors and windows closed, to keep thermostats at 68 in the winter and put on extra socks and a sweater if they are cold, to turn off lights, electronics and heat when away from home. I do. And yes, my gas bills went up last winter but they never topped $100 on a 2BR-2BA house with a pool.

The government and SoCal Gas should double down on making it easy for customers to conserve energy instead of addressing the issue in the abstract after the fact, after those first bills drop into physical or virtual mailboxes.

Because people are lazy and complain gives neither governments nor a bad actor like SoCal Gas the right to justify a business model that puts our world at risk, pushing a poison the lying SOBs claim is clean, safe and innovative while their product is polluting the air we breathe and overheating the only planet we have.

Yes. Some people will need help – homes with people who are bedridden or rely on continuous power to breathe – but that is what the government is for and most of those so affected are already getting help.

The Take Away

One, people’s lives and health come first and it’s far better not to destroy property in the first place than deal with settlements and insurance afterwards. So the CPUC must reverse its decision. The state must push forward on an accelerated shut down of Aliso Canyon and its remediation for all the same reasons.

Costs will always be less now than in the future – it’s the nature of inflation that it goes up, not down.

Two. All utilities and governments must roll out programs to assist home and business owners in transitioning to reduced energy use; the carrots can be bigger if the view is long term and not just this winter, and can be offset by bigger disincentives.

Three. Angelenos are going to have to do their part.

Pulling up their socks and pounding on their Councilmembers and their elected officials in Sacramento.

Four. Donations to the City Councilmembers, the Mayor’s fund, etc. must be scrutinized to ensure that Sempra and their fossil fuel buddies have no say. Whatsoever.

The question remains. Do people want to live in LA… or die? 

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)