Corruption and waste quietly abounded during the eight years of ex-Gov. Jerry Brown’s second go-‘round as governor of California, but there are signs current Gov. Gavin Newsom means to clean up at least some of those messes.
This may be the meaning of two recent reports that should have come down from state authorities years ago, but never did – perhaps in part because of the Brown family’s longstanding ties to the oil industry and to big California utilities.
One of those reports – released by the often scandal-ridden state Public Utilities Commission – found that the longest and largest known release of methane gas in an urban area in U.S. history was caused by a corroded pipe casing and other safety failures by the Southern California Gas Co.
The other, ordered up by Newsom from the state Energy Commission, found that “market manipulation” may have been one cause of the gasoline price spikes motorists had to endure during the spring and earlier periods of sharp price increases, with prices climbing far above $4 per gallon in many places.
Neither of these conclusions came as a surprise to consumer advocates or the victims in both cases, and both likely could have been reached years earlier had Brown wanted. But Brown’s family has long had ties to the oil and natural gas industry. His father, ex-Gov. Pat Brown, represented Indonesian energy interests in California for years after leaving office and his sister, ex-state Treasurer Kathleen Brown Rice, still sits on the board of Sempra Energy, parent of SoCal Gas and the San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
As for waste, Newsom quickly ended Brown’s pipe dream of twin tunnels to bring Northern California river water south through the Delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. Newsom advocates a single tunnel at most, still not satisfying environmentalists and fishermen who very effectively fought the Brown proposal for almost a decade.
But Newsom’s action won’t bring back more than $30 million already wasted on planning the twin tunnels. A federal Interior Department report in 2016 – before President Trump took office – also accused Brown appointees of misappropriating half a $60 million grant intended to improve fish habitats in and near the Delta.
Meanwhile, Brown’s administration again and again tried to let SoCal Gas – associated with Brown’s sister – off the hook for the four-month 2015-16 methane leak from the utility’s Aliso Canyon gas storage field, which caused years of illness among many residents of the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, especially in the nearly adjacent Porter Ranch area.
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The new report from a private firm said the company should have been able to plug its leak much sooner than it did. Courts will determine how much liability that report may create for SoCal Gas.
Meanwhile, consumer advocates had noted for years that gasoline prices during periodic spikes coinciding with refinery fires and other shutdowns were much higher than they should have been. These spikes often continue long after refinery repairs and maintenance are completed.
For sure, oil company profits peaked at those same times, making it pretty clear what was happening, even if there was no proof at the time of industry collusion.
Brown did not pursue either of these problems with any sense of urgency, paying them as little attention as he could get away with while gallivanting around the globe to push the worthy cause of stemming climate change.
In interviews during his 2018 election campaign, Newsom firmly promised to go after corruption in state government. He singled out sweetheart contracts of various types as one area he would closely examine, but so far there has been no public effort to clean those up. Firefighters, for example, retain their single-source deal with the makers of PhosCheck fire retardants, while state authorities refuse to examine alternatives that might be more effective.
Next on Newsom’s agenda ought to be a close look at the rate-making practices of utility regulators, whose tight relationships with electric and natural gas companies have cost consumers billions of dollars.
But Newsom has at least made a start. That’s both a positive and far more than Brown ever did in his last eight years in office.