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The Porter Ranch Gas Leak: Blame Gov. Jerry Brown

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Long Beach, California.

News came earlier this week that the horrific gas leak spewing methane at a natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, just outside Los Angeles, will be capped and contained by the end of February. Of course, it’s a promise that has come far too late. If you think Donald Trump is a national disgrace, you haven’t been paying much attention to what’s been happening here in California. Not that you can be blamed for not knowing how bad the atmosphere-warming leak actually is, nobody that has the power to do anything about it seems to care all that much, certainly not California’s governor-for-life Jerry Brown.

While the leak was first discovered in late October, it took Brown two full months to declare a state of emergency. This, after UC Davis scientist Stephen Conley in early November determined that 100,000 pounds of methane was leaking per hour at the site, or 1,200 tons per day. Of course, this inaction is par for the course for Brown, who has long ignored the perils of oil and gas production in the state, especially when it comes to fracking, which may have played a role in the Porter Ranch rupture. In the short term, scientists estimate the leaking methane is more than 80 times more potent than CO2 when it comes warming of our atmosphere.

“To put this into perspective, the leak effectively doubles the emission rate for the entire Los Angeles Basin,” attested Conley. “On a global scale, this is big.”

For what it’s worth, the Obama administration, longtime boosters of natural gas, hasn’t been much help either. While activists have called on the White House to declare the Porter Ranch leak a natural disaster so residents can seek tax and mortgage relief, Obama has ignored their pleas. As of early January, 6,500 families had applied for relocation assistance–the stench of methane is simply too unbearable to live with. All of this could have been prevented of course, because the Aliso Canyon storage facility, which is owned by SoCalGas, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, did not have a safety valve in place that would have helped to avert such a catastrophe.

SoCalGas also doesn’t appear to be too concerned with the welfare of those living in and around Porter Ranch. They won’t release air quality data and were seeking to expand the gas facility before they even dealt with their leak.

“At this rate, in just one month, the leak will have accounted for one-quarter of the total estimated methane emissions in the state of California. So it is no surprise that residents here feel sick,” writes Erin Brockovich, who has called the Porter Ranch leak the BP oil spill on land. “While I can escape to my home to recover from my symptoms, this community wakes up to conditions that cause vomiting, nosebleeds and serious respiratory issues daily. And no one really knows the potential long-term side effects of benzene and radon, the carcinogens that are commonly found in natural gas. This dangerous environment is why the Los Angeles Unified School District unanimously voted last week to close two Porter Ranch schools and relocate their nearly 1,900 students and staff to protect their safety.”

A sane approach to the situation would be to be to immediately put a halt to all oil and gas production in Aliso Canyon (an outright ban on all fracking in California wouldn’t be a bad idea either). Currently there is legislation slogging its way through Sacramento to this effect, but it’s likely to die a slow death in committee hearings before it ever makes it to Brown’s desk. To top things off, the Southern California Air Quality District has repeatedly refused to close down the Aliso facility.

“The Air District doesn’t need to stall any longer because it has all the information it needs to make the right decision right now: shut down the Aliso facility once and for all. We appreciate the Board hearing from the public, but this decision needs to be made fast,” says Matt Pakucko of Save Porter Ranch, a group seeking to stop the methane leak. “[This is an] insult to all of us who have been displaced from our homes, and [to] our kids who have been forced out of their schools because the air is too toxic to breathe.”

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So why is Brown essentially sitting this one out, even though the Porter Ranch leak is by far the worst environmental disaster California has experienced in years? The answer may have a lot to do with his cozy ties to the oil and gas industry. Brown has pocketed over $2,014,570.22 from the oil and gas cartel since his 2006 race for California Attorney General. The industry has also poured lavish amounts of cash, nearly $1.2 million, into the coffers of Brown’s favorite ballot initiatives, such as Prop 30, which passed a temporary tax in 2012 to fund state schools. It’s pay-to-play politics, and the California’s governor knows the game well.

Brown’s sister, Kathleen Brown, also enjoys quite a few intimate connections to California gas producers. She sits on the board of Sempra Energy, the company that owns SoCalGas, and is richly compensated for her role–$267,865 in 2013 and $188,380 in 2014.  Additionally, Kathleen Brown is a partner at Manatt Phelps, a law firm that often represents the fracking industry. Jerry and Kathleen are close. She was a delegate to Brown’s 2014 trade and investment mission to Mexico and Gov. Brown recently appointed her husband Van Gordon Sauter to the California State Athletic Commission.

Sure, Jerry Brown proclaims to be a warrior in the fight against climate change, but his resumé is stained with industry cash. The mammoth methane leak in Porter Ranch is just one example of Brown’s bureaucratic negligence and there is certainly more where that came from. Want to stop another devastating disaster like the Porter Ranch methane leak? The first order of business is to clean house and get rid of Brown and the rest of his oil and gas cronies. Only then will state regulators and legislators begin to play hardball with California’s powerful fossil fuel polluters. Until then, don’t expect much accountability.

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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