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IN THIS ISSUE – Do We Really Need 2,576 New Laws?
LEGISLATORS & POLITICS
- “Troubling,” Says Nurses Union – No Single-Payer Health Bill
- A Taxing Agenda for the Legislature
- Even a Bill for the Eating of Roadkill…No, Really
- Politics is a Full-Contact Sport
- Metropolitan Water District Attempts to Resolve Colorado River Dispute
- Sierra Snowpack Doubles in a Month
- Largest Natural Gas Leak Lawsuit Settlement Raises a Stink
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
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FOR THE WEEK ENDING MARCH 1, 2019
Former Gov. Jerry Brown famously wrote in a veto message that “not every human condition deserves a law,” a viewpoint worth pondering in light of the fact that a staggering 2,576 bills were introduced in the Legislature before last week’s deadline.
That is likely to be a record, according to statistics compiled by Chris Micheli, a veteran lobbyist who tracks the legislative process. Even in years with lots of bills — the annual average since 2013 has been close to 2,200 — the first year of this current two-year session in Sacramento stands out.
In part, it’s because so many of them are little more than empty vessels, introduced in either the state Senate or Assembly as a placeholder. A review of legislative records Saturday found 694 so-called “intent” bills promising details will later be announced on ideas including wildfire warning sirens and free school meals with California-grown products. Specific ways to make good on those intentions won’t come for several more months.
Even less clear in many cases is who actually wrote the bills. California allows lobbyists to write a proposed law from start to finish and then have a legislator introduce it as his or her own work. It’s officially called a “sponsored bill,” but there’s little consistency to knowing who’s the real force behind it.
The bills are vetted by the Legislature’s lawyers — at taxpayer expense — and often shopped by lobbyists around the Capitol in search of a lawmaker who will be the official author. While longtime legislative watchers say good ideas shouldn’t be dismissed simply because they came from interest groups, uneven transparency in the process can make it almost impossible to know the real reason the bill is being considered in the first place.
Regardless of who writes them, the bills keep coming — up to 40 proposals for each senator and 50 for each Assembly member during the two-year session. And now, the rush is on to get all of them heard in the proper legislative policy committee over the next nine weeks, the most significant moment for digging deep into the details.
Lawmakers don’t deny there are a lot of bills but often point out that citizens who grumble over lots of laws should sometimes look in the mirror.
“If I took every bill idea coming from my constituents,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said, “I’d have a bill package of, like, 100.”
As chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, Gonzalez will play a key role later this year in weeding out many of the proposals — another legislative tradition that isn’t totally transparent.
In a meeting with The Times’ Sacramento bureau last week, Gonzalez said perhaps what the Legislature should do to improve the law-writing process is remove most existing deadlines. If a bill could be introduced at almost any point in the legislative calendar, she said, then discussions on crafting better policy in committee hearings wouldn’t be limited to just a few months and instead would be year-round.
As it stands, bills with serious financial implications sometimes have to clear key committees with blank spaces for what the law in question would cost taxpayers, simply because everyone ran out of time.
“The only deadline would be the end of the session,” she said. “Maybe that would work better.”
Gonzalez said she’s not quite ready to push that kind of change. But with so many proposals whizzing by in late winter and early spring, it can be hard for lawmakers and citizens alike to fully understand what’s at stake. As it stands, the bills constitute an incredibly long to-do list for elected officials — one they must quickly make their way through starting this week.
Many California Democrats say they support single-payer health care, but none introduced a new version of the state’s landmark single-payer bill before a key deadline last week.
Stephanie Roberson, a lobbyist for the California Nurses Association, said the union was in talks with Sen. Mike McGuire about running a bill this year, but those discussions fell through.
“Senator McGuire’s admission that he could not get enough political consensus to move a bill around this issue is troubling,” Roberson said in a statement. “To not have a comprehensive solution on the table in the first year of a two-year session in the most progressive legislature in the country is baffling.”
Roberson said the nurses will continue to pursue a single-payer system in California and are also introducing a bill at the federal level.
McGuire’s office declined to make him available for an interview, but the Healdsburg Democrat said in a statement he’s still interested in working on the issue.
“As many Californians know, I’m a strong supporter of Medicare for All,” he said. “For legislation as complex and significant as this, and to combat a hostile Trump administration, we need to continue our substantial policy and fiscal discussions to move this important issue to the next step.”
The California Nurses Association waged a fierce campaign in support of Senate Bill 562 in 2017. It would have created a government-run system in California to replace private insurance. But that bill didn’t include a way to pay for the system, and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved it that year.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Gavin Newsom endorsed SB562. But since being sworn in as governor, he hasn’t publicly called for lawmakers to introduce a new version.
He says he still supports a single-payer health care system.
“I think it’s inevitable in this country, and I think states will pay an outsize role in terms of advancing the debate,” Newsom told reporters during a visit to the U.S. Capitol on Monday. “Problem is, we need waivers in order to do it.”
Newsom has requested those waivers from the Trump administration, although it’s unlikely the Republican president will approve the request. In the meantime, Newsom has proposed other ways to increase health care coverage, such as expanding eligibility for the state’s health care coverage to young adults living in the state illegally.
Cost estimates for SB562 varied widely. A University of Massachusetts Amherst analysis commissioned by the nurses union by the found the plan would cost $330 billion annually. The Legislative Analyst’s office estimated it would cost $400 billion, twice the state budget.
It would have required new taxes to cover health insurance costs for California consumers.
A study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California last year found a majority of likely California voters say they support single-payer health care, but only if it doesn’t raise their taxes.
Assemblyman Jim Wood, who leads the Assembly Health Committee, said he doesn’t think most people understand what such a system would entail. He mentioned a town hall meeting last week in which a constituent conflated “single payer,” “medicare for all” and “universal health care,” three different ideas.
“Fundamentally, people don’t really know what they want,” he said. “What I think people want, based on everything we hear, is I think they want access to high quality health care and they want a reasonable cost.”
Although he said he supports giving everyone health care access, Wood said he thinks a new version of SB562 would be “premature” because the state still doesn’t have a clear plan to fund and implement a single-payer system.
He pointed to other bills he’s pursuing, such as one to create tax credits or incentives for middle-income people to help them afford health insurance.
Roberson said the nurses don’t think simply improving the existing system is enough.
“We can’t, as leaders, just protect what we have because we fundamentally believe that health care is human right,” she said.
It’s a standard California Republican talking point that Democrats want to raise taxes. And it’s true that Golden State Democrats have introduced, or plan to introduce, legislation that would raise or create several new taxes.
If there’s one thing the proposals have in common, it’s that they all reflect some facet of the California Democratic Party’s larger environmental and social justice bent.
From a new excise tax on firearm sales to one on sugary beverages, from an oil and gas “severance tax” to an increase in the California tire fee, here’s a rundown on tax-and-fee-increasing bills currently under consideration in Sacramento.
FIREARMS EXCISE TAX
“Although California has the toughest gun laws in the nation, more effort is necessary to curtail gun violence,” Assembly Bill 18, sponsored by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, reads in part.
AB 18 “would express the intent of the Legislature” to impose an excise tax on the sale of handguns and semiautomatic rifles, with that revenue going to the California Violence Intervention and Prevention Grant Program.
According to the bill language, between 2014 and 2016, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that gun homicides in the state increased by 18 percent.
While AB 18 would express the Legislature’s intent, the actual tax would come in the form of another bill.
For the third time in as many legislative sessions, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, announced that he plans to introduce a bill to create a “beverage fee.”
“We have ignored this crisis for too long,” Bloom said in a press conference announcing his plan. “We are standing on the edge of a cliff, and addressing this health crisis requires a multi-pronged approach…”
Bloom has not yet set the proposed fee, but in past years he has argued for a 2-cents-per-fluid-ounce tax.
The soda industry has fought the proposed soda tax before, and likely will again. They have allies in Republicans like Assemblyman James Gallagher of Yuba City, who said of the idea, “Californians don’t want to be treated like children.”
TIRE CHANGE FEE
Getting a tire changed could soon get a little pricier.
Assembly Bill 755, sponsored by Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, would raise the tire change free from $1.75 per tire to $3.25 per tire.
The additional revenue would go into the state’s Stormwater Permit Compliance Fund, created by AB 755, to pay for “competitive grants for projects and programs for municipal storm sewer system permit compliance requirements that would prevent or remediate zinc pollutants caused by tires in the state.”
Tires are made up of 1 to 2 percent zinc, and that zinc can break off into “rubber crumbs” that then get into the ground, the water supply and the air. While people and animals needs a small amount of zinc to survive, large amounts can be toxic and contribute to kidney and pancreas damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clean water a priority of his new administration, and in his first budget he called for a drinking water fee that would pay to provide clean water to nearly 1 million Californians.
Senate Bill 200, sponsored by Bill Monning, D-Carmel, follows Newsom’s lead by creating a “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.”
Monning’s bill states that nearly a million people, “particularly those living in small disadvantaged communities, may be exposed to unsafe drinking water in their homes and schools, which impacts human health, household costs, and community economic development.”
While SB 200 doesn’t lay out the specifics of how that fund will receive money, he previously proposed a 95-cent monthly tax on residential water customers, as well as fees for dairy and feedlot owners and fertilizer production.
OIL AND GAS SEVERANCE TAX
A California lawmaker has called on oil and gas companies to pay “for the privilege of severing oil or gas from the earth or water.
Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, is the author of Senate Bill 246, which would impose a tax of 10 percent of the average price per barrel of oil or unit of gas.
That money would go directly into the state’s general fund.
Wieckowski’s bill is opposed by Robert Gutierrez, president and CEO of the California Taxpayers Association, who wrote in an op-ed for the Bakersfield Californian that the tax would not only harm oil and gas industry workers, but also be “an especially big dent in the wallets of those who drive for a living or are forced to commute long distances to and from jobs.”
Roadkill could be on dinner tables across California by 2021 if a Senate bill proposed this week wins approval from lawmakers.
SB 395, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Archuleta (D-Pico Rivera), seeks to amend current state law to allow drivers who fatally strike a deer, elk, antelope or wild pig to take the animal home and cook it. The bill, which was introduced Wednesday, also would let people not in vehicles who simply stumble upon a carcass keep it for food.
Under existing law, accidentally killing an animal with a vehicle isn’t illegal, but salvaging it is not permitted. The result, the bill contends, is that the meat goes to waste.
A report published by UC Davis’ Road Ecology Center last year shows that more than 56,000 animal carcasses were found on local roads and state highways between 2009 and 2017. The bill estimates that more than 20,000 deer are hit by cars on California’s roadways annually.
“This translates into hundreds of thousands of pounds of healthy meat that could be utilized to feed those in need,” the bill states.
If the law passes, the person who takes the animal would be required to retroactively apply online for a wildlife salvage permit within 24 hours of finding the carcass. With this data, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would maintain a log of the number of permits issued, the location of impacts, species of wildlife and the estimated amount of meat salvaged each year.
The bill does not make all wild animals fair game on the state’s roadways. The proposed legislation, which could be voted on as early as March 23, emphasizes that the animal has to have been killed accidentally.
The wildlife department declined to comment on the proposed legislation as a matter of policy. Archuleta could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
While some expressed disgust over the proposal online, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote on its website that roadkill is a more humane food source and a “superior option” to meat in the supermarket.
“Eating roadkill is healthier for the consumer than meat laden with antibiotics, hormones, and growth stimulants, as most meat is today,” PETA wrote.
At the party’s weekend convention, state GOP delegates selected Jessica Patterson, a millennial Latina with a lengthy resume as a behind-the-scenes party operator, as their new chair.
Depending on whom you ask, Patterson’s election offers a ray of hope for a struggling party, marks the continuation of a failed strategy, or is bound to make absolutely no difference for a party tethered to an unpopular president.
Travis Allen, the Trump-supporting firebrand from Huntington Beach and former candidate for governor who had vowed to take on a party establishment came up short. So did longtime Republican activist Steve Frank. They both lost despite entering into a political alliance to “resist” Patterson.
“I think we did dodge a bullet,” said Assemblyman Chad Mayes from Yucca Valley, a regular critic of the party’s fervent Trump-leaning base. Prior to the chair’s race, he had warned that an Allen election would lead elected Republicans to leave the GOP.
“This will make a huge difference,” said Luis Alvarado, a consultant, adding that the election of Patterson gave him “hope” for the future of the party.
George Andrews, a party delegate and chief of staff to Assemblyman Tom Lackey, went even further, saying Patterson’s “saved the party.”
Allen’s singular appeal to Trump-supporting diehards had little draw outside of California’s few remaining red districts, he argued. “She can do the math,” Andrews said. “If you can’t do math you probably should be chair of the party.”
Patterson is hardly a moderate. She is unequivocally opposed to abortion, is backed by the House minority leader and noted Trump whisperer, Kevin McCarthy, and spent the convention referring to Democratic legislators as the “enemy.”
“She’s not anti-Trump,” Andrews said of Patterson, “But she knows how to campaign.” After winning, the president’s eldest son congratulated Patterson on Twitter.
Patterson starts in a deep hole. The California Republican Party had $324,012 in the bank as of its most recent campaign finance filing. The California Democratic Party had $11.7 million.
Unlike Allen, her closest competitor in the race, Patterson did not make her political views or her loyalty to the president the centerpiece of her campaign. That’s a continuation of the approach adopted by Jim Brulte, her immediate predecessor, who viewed the chair position as an operations and logistics manager, not a spokesperson.
“There are too few of us to continue to push people out of the party,” Patterson said the day before the vote. “We are not going to shout people out. We are going to be inclusive.”
But as Allen and Frank spent the entire weekend pointing out, that hands-off approach has not been working.
“We face an existential decision,” Allen said during a moderated discussion on Saturday. “Will we change to fight to win again or will we continue the failing status quo?”
Republicans now make up 24 percent of the California electorate. In last year’s election, they lost half of their congressional delegation and saw their minorities in the state assembly and senate reduced to near political irrelevance.
Both Allen and Frank argued that the party’s core problem was not its association with President Trump, whose approval numbers hover around one-third, but its failure to adequately fund voter registration efforts.
After winning, Patterson invited Allen and Frank to lead a newly created “voter registration task force.”
“We can only hope that the Republican Party starts fighting again for the good of all Californians,” Allen said after the results of the vote were broadcast to the convention center auditorium.
Patterson’s victory represents a break from that status quo in one very obvious way. She is the first woman to hold the position of chair and the first Latina. That may be a notable achievement in and of itself. The Republican Party has struggled with white, educated women and Latino voters in the Trump era.
The party delegates also elected Peter Kuo, a Taiwanese-born Silicon Valley businessman, as its vice chairman. Greg Gandrud, an openly gay man from the Santa Barbara area, was elected party treasurer for the second time.
Lest anyone accuse the new leadership team of championing multicultural diversity for its own sake, Gandrud recently formed a nonprofit to sue the Santa Barbara public school district for, according to his website, a “curriculum that is racist against white people and teaches students that white male Christian capitalists are oppressors.”
Contrary to the party’s national image, Patterson joins a long list of women in leadership positions within the California GOP, including Sens. Pat Bates and Shannon Grove, the current and incoming minority leaders in the Senate, and Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, the top Republican in the Assembly.
“In the legislative bodies that have supported me, I am so incredibly grateful for the leaders—having three women on the legislative side,” Patterson said at the convention hall. “Senator Grove, Senator Bates and Assemblywoman Waldron: let’s go out there and do this.”
“This” presumably refers to new efforts to expand the allure of the state GOP. But that broader ideological appeal was not reflected in the line up of speakers at this weekend’s convention. They included former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney and Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson.
It’s unclear whether the events of the convention—including the election of Patterson—will resonate with California voters outside the most fervent Republican activists. But according to Mayes, Patterson’s election is a good step in the right direction.
“We still have an incredible amount of work to do,” he said. “Having a new chair is not going to solve our problems. We have to be inclusive, we have to start reaching Californians where they’re at…they’re not going to come to us, we’ve got to go to them. I think Jessica knows that and understands that.”
Anyone who harbors the quaint notion that high-stakes politics are rational, much less ethical, should be disabused by two terms: “gerrymandering” and “ballot harvesting.”
When Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and maintained it for three subsequent election cycles, Democrats complained loudly that it was the result of gerrymandering – drawing districts in a way to favor one party – by GOP-controlled state legislatures.
The complaint was accurate. There had been a concerted effort by Republicans and allied groups to gain state legislative seats in hopes of influencing the redrawing of congressional districts, and it succeeded.
Democratic leaders have become big fans of independent redistricting commissions such as the one created in California.
However, it should be noted that California’s Democratic leaders bitterly opposed the ballot measures that created and then expanded the state’s redistricting commission – and, in fact, happily engaged in gerrymandering themselves when they could.
The most blatant example occurred after the 1980 census as the Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown redrew legislative and congressional districts. The congressional plan, overseen by the late Congressman Phil Burton, grabbed several seats from Republicans with districts so bizarrely shaped that Burton called them “my contribution to modern art.”
Republicans challenged the gerrymander with a referendum, and voters voided the Democrats’ maps in 1982, but Brown and legislators simply enacted a slightly revised version just days before Brown ceded the governorship to Republican George Deukmejian.
Last year in California, Democrats flipped half of the GOP’s 14 congressional districts, including several in seemingly impregnable strongholds in Orange and San Diego counties.
A major and perhaps decisive reason for the Democratic sweep of targeted seats was “ballot harvesting,” which had been made legal by legislation passed by a Democratic Legislature and signed by Brown in 2016.
Previously, a voter’s ballot could be delivered only personally or by a relative. Thenew law authorized “any person” to do it, thus allowing partisan operatives to help voters fill out their ballots at home and then personally deliver them to election authorities. Huge numbers of ballots in the target districts were delivered at the last moment, and in several cases overturned what had appeared to be Republican wins.
Orange County’s registrar of voters, Neal Kelley, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the county “certainly had that going on here, with people dropping off maybe 100 or 200 ballots” and the county’s GOP chairman, Fred Whitaker, said the party’s losses were the “direct result of ballot harvesting allowed under California law for the first time.”
Republican laments about the effects of ballot harvesting in California were matched only by Democratic jubilation about what they had wrought with the 2016 legislation. However, while Democrats celebrate ballot harvesting in California, they are complaining that it unfairly and illegally helped a Republican eke out a very narrow victory in a hotly contested North Carolina congressional district.
Republican Mark Harris seemingly defeated Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes but Democrats claimed that a campaign operative for Harris illegally helped a decisive number of voters fill out their ballots and then personally delivered them to election officials in Bladen County.
Harris and his operative, L. McCrae Dowless, deny the allegations but last Thursday Harris agreed to void the election and conduct a new vote in the district. An election board that had been investigating the case quickly complied.
Both practices underscore an enduring axiom of politics: As with any competitive sport, changing the rules of the game can alter the outcome, so who controls the rules is just as important as the skill of the players.
Frustrated by delays in agreeing to plans for coping with looming shortages on the Colorado River, the head of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California wants to move the deal forward by agreeing to shoulder additional supply cuts.
If the proposal is approved by the Metropolitan board, California would join a multi-state drought contingency plan and the water district would ensure its access to reserves stored in Lake Mead.
California and Arizona both missed a key deadline this month to finalize agreements for the drought plan drafted by the seven Western states that depend on Colorado River supplies.
Although Arizona appears ready to wrap up its end of the deal, California has been stymied by the Imperial Irrigation District.
Imperial, a sprawling agricultural district east of San Diego, says it won’t sign off until the federal government sends money it was promised for restoring the Salton Sea.
Kightlinger’s proposal would bypass the need for Imperial’s signature by assuming responsibility for the irrigation district’s future delivery cuts — in addition to those expected of Metropolitan.
He said he would ask the board to approve the workaround at its March 12 meeting.
“I believe we need the drought contingency plan,” Kightlinger said. “I believe the entire system is in danger.”
If California and Arizona fully agree to the drought plan, that would head off action by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees management of the lower Colorado River.
Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman has warned that the federal government will develop its own shortage plans if the Colorado River basin states don’t agree on how to share the burden of delivery cuts.
Nearly two decades of drought have depleted the river and the huge reservoirs that fill faucets and irrigation ditches from Colorado to Southern California. Federal water managers have repeatedly warned that the time is approaching when they will have to formally declare a shortage, triggering a cascade of river rationing.
Under the drought plan, Arizona, Nevada and California would reduce their withdrawals from Lake Mead in progressive steps to keep the reservoir’s levels from dropping low enough to jeopardize hydropower production and, eventually, water releases.
Imperial has senior rights to the largest water allocation on the entire river and diverts the bulk of California’s share of the Colorado.
Metropolitan takes the second-biggest share of California’s diversions.
Imperial has agreed to the broad outlines of the multi-state shortage plan, but before district directors ink the final documents, they want the federal government to provide $200 million for Salton Sea restoration work.
The lake is sustained by irrigation runoff from the Imperial Valley. But as Imperial sold some of its river water to San Diego, both irrigated acreage and field runoff declined, causing the lake to shrink.
As the shoreline recedes, parts of a lake bed laced with farm chemicals and other pollutants have turned to dust, fouling the air. The lake has also grown increasingly salty, worsening its already bad water quality.
All that was anticipated when the San Diego water sales were agreed to more than a decade ago. The state and federal governments promised costly restoration programs. But they have been slow to materialize.
Imperial officials say they are optimistic they can line up the $200 million in federal funds, paving the way for board approval of the drought accord.
“I think everybody is trying to resolve the matter,” said Henry Martinez, Imperial’s general manager. “We’re not just sitting around.”
But it’s not happening fast enough for Kightlinger, who is concerned about Lake Mead.
Under a 2007 agreement, Metropolitan, Imperial and agencies in Arizona and Nevada have been allowed to store reserves in Lake Mead for future withdrawal. But if a river shortage is declared, those withdrawals would end.
Kightlinger said he wants the drought plan to go into effect as soon as possible so the states can take steps to avert a shortage declaration and maintain access to their Lake Mead reserves.
Metropolitan’s staff calculated the agency would wind up with more water if it absorbs Imperial’s future cuts than it would if reserves were locked up in Lake Mead, Kightlinger said.
“Being able to bank water and have access to it is worth it,” he said.
Kightlinger said the reaction was positive when he floated his proposal Monday at a Las Vegas meeting with Burman and representatives of neighboring states.
Imperial officials were also at the meeting. “They wanted us to keep waiting until the Salton Sea is resolved. I said, ‘It doesn’t seem to be any closer,’ ” Kightlinger recalled.
If Metropolitan does seal California’s end of the deal, Imperial could join later, Kightlinger added. And if that happens, Metropolitan would no longer be responsible for the cuts intended for Imperial.
It’s no surprise, but feet upon feet of Sierra snow across multiple storms in February translated to healthy snow water content for California.
How healthy? Department of Water Resources officials observed more than double what they measured last month at Phillips Station near Echo Summit, recording 113 inches of snow depth with a snow water equivalent of 43.5 inches Thursday, according to a news release.
A month ago at the February survey (Jan. 31), snow-water equivalent had reached 100 percent of the statewide average (17.3 inches) at the February survey.
A state putting a drought behind it has seen big jumps this winter in snowpack and water health. Statewide snow water equivalent has soared to 153 percent of average (37.1 inches), nearly six times more water than recorded last Feb. 28 (just 5.5 inches) and already 33 percent above California’s average accumulation by April 1.
California will likely continue to get good precipitation through April with help from El Niño conditions, DWR said in Thursday’s release.
“This is shaping up to be an excellent water year,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement.
In a bit of irony, release of the snow survey’s results was delayed and a planned livestream of the survey was canceled due to snow. Thursday’s conditions blocked cell and internet service at Phillips Station.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A stink is being raised over a $120 million court settlement from the nation’s largest-known natural gas leak and it’s not about money, but cow manure.
Environmental groups have criticized a plan to put more than a fifth of the settlement toward capturing climate-changing methane from dairy farms in the state’s farm belt — more than 100 miles from where the blowout occurred on the edge of Los Angeles.
Criticism of the dairy component of the deal struck between Southern California Gas Co. and the state and city of Los Angeles is wide-ranging, but groups complained the utility is getting full credit for projects partly funded by state money.
“They get to count methane reduction that was already happening on the public dime,” said attorney Nina Robertson of Earthjustice.
A court hearing is scheduled Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court to consider whether to give final approval of the settlement.
Part of the agreement addresses mitigation of the 109,000 metric tons of methane released after a well blowout in the Aliso Canyon storage field in October 2015 that took nearly four months to stop. The incident sent a sulfurous stench over the community of Porter Ranch, where residents complained of headaches, nausea, nose bleeds and other symptoms.
The company has spent more than $1 billion related to the blowout with the majority of that going to temporarily relocate 8,000 families, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The utility still faces more than 385 lawsuits on behalf of 48,000 people.
Under the settlement, the utility agreed to pay up to $25 million to study long-term health consequences; reimburse city, county and state governments for responding to the incident; and monitor chemicals in the air near the facility for eight years. Costs of the settlement can’t be passed along to ratepayers.
The mitigation part of the deal calls for the utility to pay $26.5 million toward technology that captures methane from lagoons of cow manure and pipes it into the natural gas supply chain to be used to fuel trucks that run on compressed natural gas.
A coalition of environmental groups criticized that decision as an inefficient way to absorb the methane and said it would lead to larger and more concentrated dairies and lead to smoggier air in the already heavily polluted San Joaquin Valley while also creating more natural gas infrastructure at a time when cleaner alternatives are needed.
They joined the chorus of residents directly affected by the blowout in calling for mitigation in the Los Angeles area where there are plenty of sources where methane could be reduced.
“Fix what you broke where you broke it,” said Phoebe Seaton of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability.
Representatives from the attorney general’s office and the California Air Resources Board would not comment in advance of the hearing, but the air board defended the settlement in a response to public comments filed in the court case.
The state said dairies, which contribute 20 percent of the state’s methane, were the optimal place to mitigate the methane and would provide a win-win controlling methane emissions on farms and providing energy used to fuel trucks that will eliminate pollution otherwise created by diesel big-rigs.
Earthjustice criticized the deal because SoCalGas will receive full credit even though public funds are being used. It also said there’s not enough information to determine what percentage of a project the gas company will fund.
If SoCalGas contributes 10 percent of the funding to a dairy where 5,000 tons of methane is captured, it should only get credit for mitigating 500 tons — not the full amount, Robertson said.
“Without such an adjustment, the mitigation agreement grossly overstates SoCalGas’ contribution in achieving methane reductions and fails to constitute full mitigation for the Aliso disaster,” Robertson wrote.
The air board did not respond directly to that criticism, but rejected the idea the utility was getting a subsidy toward mitigation.
Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for SoCalGas, did not comment on the criticism but said the settlement is consistent with the utility’s commitment to mitigate the leak.