Consumer Watchdog: Grill PUC nominee on oil, gas links

Aliso Canyon in Southern California, site of an unprecedented methane gas leak. (Photo: trekandshoot, via Shutterstock)

Aliso Canyon was the biggest methane well blowout in U.S. history, and we still don’t know why it happened. The California Public Utilities Commission and Brown administration regulators just reopened the facility without the necessary environmental and safety reviews, so we have no way of knowing if it will happen again.

Governor Brown has nominated Cliff Rechtschaffen, his top oil and gas aide with a long history of aiding industry at the public’s expense, to one of the PUC’s five seats. Rechtschaffen is responsible for ignoring rules that could have prevented the blowout at Aliso Canyon that sickened thousands of Californians.

If Rechtschaffen is confirmed, the oil and gas industry will have placed an invaluable ally with a proven track record in a critical post.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter to the Senate opposing Rechtschaffen’s confirmation.

While working for Brown, Cliff Rechtschaffen fired oil and gas regulators trying to make oil drilling safer at the behest of Occidental Petroleum. His actions killed safer oil well regulations that could have prevented oil worker deaths and the contamination of protected aquifers.

The Senate Rules Committee will vote on the nomination this Wednesday. Senators must demand answers about Rechtschaffen’s past actions that have hit ratepayers in the pocketbook and put Californians’ health and safety at risk.

Watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7oDArCZTxQ

Rechtschaffen fired two top oil and gas regulators in 2011, after Occidental Petroleum and its attorney, former Governor Gray Davis, pressured Governor Jerry Brown to speed up the granting of oil industry permits without proper environmental review, according to court papers. His actions, and subsequent restructuring of the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), stopped pending regulations that could have prevented the contamination of aquifers with oilfield wastewater. In the wake of the firings, and granting of a Kern County fracking permit, Occidental contributed a total of $500,000 to Proposition 30, Brown’s initiative to raise taxes.

The re-direction of DOGGR also killed efforts to improve the safety of cyclic steaming, which can open up sinkholes like one in which a Chevron worker lost his life. Without the regulations in place, oil companies carried on the dangerous practice without adequate safeguards. By undermining well rules as the Governor’s point person on oil and gas issues, Rechtschaffen put public health and safety at risk.

Rechtschaffen’s ignoring of DOGGR standards may even have led to the failure in Aliso Canyon, site of the largest methane well blowout in US history. As Governor Brown’s trusted oil advisor, he must have been instrumental in the administration’s decision to delay calling a state of emergency at Aliso Canyon for three months. When he finally did act, Brown’s proclamation swept the investigation into the causes of the blowout into the shadows.

Rechtschaffen greenlighted the re-opening of Aliso Canyon, despite independent reviews showing the facility is not needed for energy reliability. Its reopening means that Sempra will be allowed to charge ratepayers $200 million for a new gas compressor station at Aliso while storing gas for commercial customers who use it to play the market.

At the very least, the Senate must demand answers from Rechtschaffen.

Decisions made by the PUC over the next several years will help determine how big a part fossil fuels retain in the state’s energy future. A handmaiden for the energy industry will not meet that challenge.  Public safety and ratepayers’ pocketbooks should be paramount as Senators vote this Wednesday. Rechtschaffen’s record shows he will protect neither. Lawmakers should reject him.

Ed’s Note: Carmen Balber is the executive director of Consumer Watchdog.

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