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Is ‘hot gas’ rift developing between enviros, Brown?

A move by the state Public Utilities Commission to ease restrictions on the multibillion-dollar natural-gas industry is kindling the suspicions of environmentalists over the role of newly elected Attorney General Jerry Brown–and the LNG industry’s influence at the Commission.

“The commission’s action fundamentally changes the supply of natural gas in California,” the South Coast Air Quality Management District wrote in an unusual challenge to the PUC that was filed with both the California Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeal. The AQMD, which has assumed the lead role in the challenge to the PUC’s decision, said the commissioners “fundamentally erred” by ruling that state environmental law didn’t apply to the case and by approving “the change in gas quality without any environmental analysis.” The AQMD’s chief concern: The decision will lead to poorer air quality in the L.A. basin.

The AQMD is the lone plaintiff in the case filed January 23, although environmentalists, the city of San Diego and Brown’s predecessor, former state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, were among those who weighed in against the PUC’s September 2006 decision that revised–critics say weakened–gas-quality rules to ease restrictions on the importation of hotter liquefied natural gas into the state.

The AQMD is bringing the case on its own, and pushing it through the higher courts. “In terms of the lawsuit, we were the only ones named as plaintiffs,” noted AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

Environmentalists and Capitol sources contend Brown left the AQMD team in the lurch and is backing off the position of Lockyer, who had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the environmentalists’ position. Thus far, there is no indication from Brown’s office about any change in his role in connection with the case, and no announcement has been made about the issue.

“My understanding is that the attorney general didn’t have an opportunity to consider whether to file an amicus brief, because of transition and timing with the new job,” said Brown spokesman Gareth Lacy. “But that said, we are following the case pretty closely. And the attorney general is aware that the PUC is considering it’s position on this matter. Basically, we are waiting to see if the PUC reconsiders its decision.”

But critics say the absence of action is itself the problem, and that by not assuming a more aggressive posture Brown is signaling that he does not intend to vigorously pursue the case through the state’s highest courts. The role of the state attorney general, they say, is critical in such cases because the office has extensive expertise and resources that it can call upon.

“The attorney general is the office charged with overseeing enforcement of CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act). The fact that he came in was a big deal, because he is the 800-pound gorilla saying that the law has been violated. With the AG coming in, in addition to the AQMD, he was taking the suit to the next level,” said Cory Briggs, an attorney for Ratepayers for Affordable Clean Energy, or RACE.

“AQMD is right on the money,” he added. “And when the AG comes in and backs you up, it does a lot to counterbalance the dozens of industry groups and their armies of lawyers.

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