By Susan Shelley.
Here’s a question for you: Does campaign money affect the actions of government officials?
You may be laughing, but it’s a deadly serious question.
About 2,500 families have been relocated from their homes in Porter Ranch and over 1,400 more have asked to be moved. They have been sickened by the catastrophic natural gas leak from a well about a mile from their front doors.
The story of how those front doors ended up so close to a working natural gas storage facility begins with $245,000 in campaign donations. That’s how much the Porter Ranch Development Co. gave L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and members of the city council between 1982 and 1989, when the 1,300-acre project was under consideration.
The mayor gave his approval to the Porter Ranch development late in 1989, and the council followed, unanimously, in mid-1990.
Yet somehow, none of the city officials remembered to tell the public that just north of the proposed residential and commercial development, there was a massive underground natural gas storage facility, and right next to that, a working oil field.
It’s instructive to view the timeline for the Aliso Canyon oil and gas facilities above Porter Ranch:
- 1938 – Oil is discovered in Aliso Canyon
- 1972 – Sempra Energy (parent of SoCalGas) turns a depleted oil field into an underground storage facility for natural gas. The company buys gas in the summer and stores it at Aliso Canyon so it can be delivered through pipelines to local customers in the winter.
- 1982 to 1989 – The Porter Ranch Development Co. donates over $245,000 to L.A. City Council members and Mayor Tom Bradley.
- 1989 – The Termo Co. of Long Beach buys the North Aliso Canyon oil field and develops it into an active drilling site, which it remains today.
- 1989 – Mayor Bradley gives his approval to the Porter Ranch development after reaching an agreement with Councilman Hal Bernson, an advocate for the project, to have the developer provide affordable housing and new freeway ramps.
- 1990 – The city council votes 14-0 to approve the development after listening to three hours of comments from local residents about trash, traffic and sewage.
- Oct. 23, 2015 — SoCalGas discovers a leak at one of its injection and withdrawal wells, SS-25, at the Aliso Canyon facility above Porter Ranch. The company is unable to stop the leak despite seven attempts to plug the well by pumping fluids down the well shaft.
- Jan. 6, 2016—Gov. Jerry Brown declares an emergency and directs state agencies to implement tough new regulations to verify the safety and condition of all gas storage facilities. He asks for daily inspections of well heads, pressure measurements, and regular testing of safety valves. Meanwhile, a quartet of bills is introduced in the state legislature to toughen oversight.
The crisis might have been prevented if the same safety regulations now being rushed had been thoughtfully implemented in 1990, before thousands of Porter Ranch homebuyers closed escrow.
It’s fair to ask: Why didn’t that happen?
Would you like to guess how much money Sempra Energy has donated to state candidates and campaign committees in California just since 2001?
More than $12 million. And that doesn’t count local candidates, like city council members and county supervisors.
Governor Brown was one of the candidates who accepted generous donations — $79,200 between 2010 and 2014 — from Sempra. Were his decisions ever influenced by that financial support? Maybe not, but last year Governor Brown vetoed six bills — passed unanimously by the Legislature — that would have reformed the California Public Utilities Commission by making it harder for the commissioners to be cozy with the utilities they regulate.
One of the utilities regulated by the sometimes-cozy commissioners is Sempra’s SoCalGas.
Public trust is a fragile thing. As the emergency in Porter Ranch continues, investigations are underway into what happened, who is at fault, and how similar incidents can be prevented in the future.
A lot is riding on every decision.
When a catastrophic event puts public health at risk, no one should have to wonder whether government officials are acting in the best interest of the public, or whether they’re molding their decisions to help a campaign donor.
There’s only one way to be sure.
Everyone in California who holds a public office or is currently running for one, or both, should immediately stop accepting campaign contributions from Sempra Energy.
The clean-up in Porter Ranch starts now.