New investigation reveals corporate capture of air regulator in L.A. County gas leak

Following a long delay, things are moving quickly with the environmentally catastrophic methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas facility in Los Angeles, first noticed in October 2015. After leaking about 94,000 metric tons of methane into the air—far and away the state’s biggest single contributor to global warming at the moment—11 different local, state, and federal agencies are now suing or investigating criminal charges for the company responsible, Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), including misdemeanor charges filed by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. The California Senate also passed a moratorium that, if signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, would prevent SoCalGas from injecting gas into the leaking well as well as 18 gas storage wells at Aliso Canyon that are as old and potentially just as decrepit (there are 115 wells in total).

With so many moving parts, it could be easy to overlook the role of the Southern Coast Air Quality Management District board, the regional regulator in Southern California that has broad authority to enforce air quality standards mandated by federal and state law. However, the SCAQMD is the only government agency with direct authority to abate the air nuisance in the area surrounding the leak, which has forced thousands to leave their homes in recent months.

In January, the SCAQMD received complaints from over one hundred angry Porter Ranch residents, many of whom demanded that the entire Aliso Canyon facility, all 115 wells, be shut down. To their disappointment, the SCAQMD approved an order of abatement on January 23 that leaves the Aliso Canyon facility largely unchanged, save a mandate to enhance leak monitoring and fund an independent health study. The order also provided SoCalGas a bit of wiggle room to continue injecting and withdrawing gas from the problematic well if the California Public Utilities Commission deemed it necessary to maintain regional gas supplies. And, while the SCAQMD also filed a lawsuit against SoCalGas, it may only net the public $25 million from the company—well below the $1 billion that SoCalGas is insured for damages it has caused.

A LittleSis investigation into the SCAQMD governing board members’ financial and professional connections to Sempra Energy, the parent company of SoCalGas, could explain the relative tepidness of its abatement order and lawsuit. In particular, we found:

  • Five of thirteen SCAQMD governing board members, including its chairman, were either appointed by folks who have taken significant contributions from Sempra or have taken contributions from Sempra themselves.
  • Two governing board members have family with ties to Sempra, including chairman William Burke, whose daughter, Assemblymember Autumn Burke, received more campaign contributions from Sempra in 2014 than any other candidate running for local or state office except Governor Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.
  • One member of the governing board, Joseph Lyou, is the President and CEO of California’s Coalition for Clean Air, which takes an unknown amount of charitable contributions from SoCalGas. Additionally, the Coalition’s Treasurer, Hal Snyder, is a vice president at SoCalGas.

The SCAQMD’s ties to Sempra Energy can be seen in the map below. Click through for a larger version here.