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A gas gathering plant on a hilltop at the Southern California Gas Company's Aliso Canyon storage facility near the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2017. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Calendar note: WhatMatters is taking a break from work for the Labor Day holiday and will return to your inboxes on Tuesday, Sept. 5.

It looks like Aliso Canyon can ramp up operations after all.

On Thursday, the state’s five-member Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to increase the capacity of the natural gas storage facility in Los Angeles County — the site of the country’s largest gas leak in 2015 — despite strong opposition from local residents and environmentalists. Owned by Southern California Gas Co., the facility can now increase its storage to near-full capacity, from 41.2 billion cubic feet to 68.6 billion cubic feet.

  • Alice Reynolds, utilities commission president: “Climate change is bringing many unpredictable and extreme weather events. This decision will help us be more resilient to those impacts. It’s our job as energy regulators to allow for mitigation of price volatility and provide price protections to ratepayers…. We also need to allow people, especially low-income and vulnerable customers, to access affordable energy as we move to a new electrified economy.”

SoCal Gas has said it needs to expand the facility’s capacity to replenish its reserves and protect customers from price hikes this coming winter. But local residents and some legislators aren’t buying the argument. Despite a prior commission approval to increase inventory from 34 billion cubic feet in 2021, the average bill for SoCalGas customers was estimated to have doubled from January 2022 to January 2023

Several residents and advocates asserted that Thursday’s vote was more about boosting SoCalGas’ profits than about lowering ratepayers’ bills.

  • Mark Schlosberg, Food & Water Watch public affairs managing director: “It’s really outrageous that eight years after the Aliso Canyon gas blowout, it’s still not shut down. And it’s even more outrageous that we’re talking about consideration of an increase in use of this dangerous, polluting and poisoning facility…. Protect the community, protect people over profits.”

During the leak, Aliso Canyon released more than 100,000 tons of methane into the air over roughly four months, forcing thousands to flee their homes and students to attend different schools. The commission, appointed by the governor, is under directives to close the facility by 2027, which Newsom has supported. 

Reynolds said that Thursday’s decision “does not impact” those plans, though some still view expanding operations as a step backwards. That includes two legislators who represent Porter Ranch residents, Sen. Henry Stern and Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo, both Democrats.

  • Schiavo, in an interview on Wednesday: “It’s something that our community’s really concerned about and it really feels like it’s going in the wrong direction…. It’s hard to have trust in a company that seemed like maybe they made a bad choice, and then everybody in the community had to pay for it.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time the administration has disappointed environmentalists in the name of ensuring energy supplies. In August, the State Water Resources Control Board voted to reserve the continued use of seawater-cooled units at three natural gas plants in Southern California, despite the state mandate to reach 100% renewable and zero-carbon electricity by 2045. 

Also, Newsom supported a federal commission’s March vote to extend the operations of Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear power plant, at least until 2030 — even though PG&E had agreed to close down both reactors by 2025. Environmental and anti-nuclear groups opposed the extension, citing concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

In response to delaying both the Diablo Canyon and Aliso Canyon phase-outs, Newsom spokesperson Anthony York told Politico: “If that comes at the expense of the lights staying on, you know, you have to be practical.”

More on energy: Late Thursday night, Newsom and legislative leaders announced a deal on a proposal designed to produce more clean energy and make the power grid more reliable.

The agreement includes creating a central buyer for clean electricity, including from offshore wind farms, and accelerating permits for transmission lines. Newsom called the amendments to AB 1373 a follow-up to the package he hammered out with the Legislature this summer to accelerate infrastructure projects

  • Newsom, in a statement: “This legislation will help us achieve a 100% clean electric grid and phase out the very pollution that causes extreme weather in the first place. We’re taking action to build the clean energy we need, faster.”
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Focus on inequality: On Fridays, CalMatters’ California Divide team delivers a newsletter that focuses on the politics and policy of inequality. Read the latest installment here and subscribe here.

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1
Stopping retaliation against workers

Veronica and Sandra at Harvard Park in Los Angeles, on July 13, 2023. Photo by Ashley Balderrama, CalMatters
Veronica and Sandra Barreno at Harvard Park in Los Angeles, on July 13, 2023. Photo by Ashley Balderrama, CalMatters

Low-wage workers are retaliating against retaliation

More specifically, advocacy groups are supporting legislation that would make it more difficult for employers to retaliate against workers who report workplace complaints, including wage theft and safety violations. 

As Jeanne Kuang and Alejandra Reyes-Velarde from CalMatters’ California Divide team explain, under Senate Bill 497, if a worker is fired, demoted or had their hours cut within 90 days of making a wage claim or filing a complaint about unequal pay, the Labor Commissioner’s Office and state courts will assume employers are illegally retaliating.

Currently, the burden of proof is on the worker to prove that the employer’s action was indeed retaliatory.

According to a CalMatters analysis, California workers filed an average of 706 claims of workplace retaliation per month last year, which is a 50% increase over the pre-pandemic monthly average in 2019. In the first three months of this year, workers averaged more claims per month than the monthly average last year.

Advocates and the state agree that this is due to workers’ increasing awareness of labor protections. 

  • Jules Yun of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance advocacy center: “Why this retaliation happens is workers standing up for themselves, standing up for their rights, and owners and companies putting those workers down, deterring the other workers by this increased fear.”

For more insight, including details on workers Jeanne and Alajandra spoke to about their retaliation cases, read the full story.

Speaking of workplace politics: SB 399, targeted by the California Chamber as a job killer, is now a two-year bill, with consideration put off until next year. The bill would stop employers from retaliating when workers don’t attend an office meeting on political matters, including unionization; the Chamber said it would stifle employer speech. Several other bills opposed by the Chamber now sit in the “suspense file” that will be decided today.

2
A big day for CA bills

The Assembly floor at the state Capitol on April 24, 2023.

The Assembly floor at the state Capitol on April 24, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

It’s suspense file day at the Legislature!

CalMatters reporters will again be watching closely today to see which bills — especially those pushed or opposed by powerful interests — get summarily executed by the Assembly and Senate appropriations committees or survive for floor votes. 

We’ll be publishing a story soon after the rapid-fire decision-making is over, so look for it on our spiffed-up website or our social media feeds.

Speaking of the suspense file, Assembly Republicans rallied Thursday with crime victim advocates, business owners and law enforcement groups on several bills on the docket. They want the committees to advance SB 14, the much-talked about measure to increase punishment for child sex trafficking, and to kill SB 553 on workplace violence and SB 81 and SB 94 on parole.

  • Assembly GOP leader James Gallagher of Chico: “Enough is enough — the Legislature needs to stop excusing and enabling the crime wave that’s turning people around the state into victims. Members of the Appropriations Committee have a choice: double down on the pro-criminal policies that got us into this mess or protect law-abiding Californians.”

In other legislative news: A stopgap measure could surface to help homeowners who can’t get insurance, as major companies exit California, especially those in wildfire danger zones. 

Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and legislative Democrats are reportedly trying to craft a package that would let insurers factor climate change-fueled disasters into their rates. Senate Republicans, in a letter last week demanding that Lara take action, indicated they’re willing to consider such a solution.

We have an inside look into the potential deal, courtesy of an overheard conversation on a Southwest flight to Sacramento last week. As recounted by Politico on Thursday, Michael Gunning, a longtime insurance building industry lobbyist, talked about trying to “jam” a “surprise” bill in the final weeks before the session ends Sept. 14 (or probably in the wee hours of Sept. 15).  

The comments were recorded by Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that has a vested interest in insurance rates. He told Politico the bill is an unnecessary “bailout” for insurers. As for Gunning, he told Politico that he’s mad about being recorded without his consent and that his comments were taken out of context. 

3
How long for COVID meeting rules?

California Rehabilitation Oversight board members listen to speakers during a meeting at Sacramento State University in Sacramento on Jan. 26, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

California Rehabilitation Oversight board members during a meeting at Sacramento State University on Jan. 26, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

From CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Sameea Kamal:

While negotiations continue over a bill to allow state boards to avoid some in-person meeting rules until Jan. 1, 2026, the governor’s office has put forth language in a budget trailer bill that reinstates the policies until the end of the year.

The carve-outs from California’s open meetings law were put in place during the pandemic to allow more flexibility for remote meetings for public health reasons, but expired on June 30 as the COVID-19 threat largely recedes.

SB 544, introduced by Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, would reinstate some of them by suspending the requirement to post agendas at each remote location and require public access to those locations. Instead, just one physical site would be required and only one state agency board member or a staff member would need to be present there. 

While Laird argues that remote meetings allow more public participation, an unusual coalition of good government, press and industry groups has raised red flags about transparency. And at an Assembly Budget Committee hearing Wednesday, Assemblymember Vince Fong raised similar concerns about the proposed trailer bill provision, which, unlike Laird’s bill, also applies to local governments. 

  • Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield and vice chairperson of the budget committee: “These are our emergency provisions for the pandemic, so I’m trying to understand. We, of course, talk about highlighting and promoting transparency, and so, to continuously suspend provisions of the Bagley-Keene Act is very disconcerting to me.”

Fong noted that state agencies had been meeting in person since the emergency provisions lapsed, and questioned why ​​state boards need the exemption.

H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the Department of Finance, told CalMatters that the trailer bill addresses the issue of potential threats to elected officials that could be caused by the rules that require posting home addresses and allowing people into their homes for meetings.

  • Palmer: “This leads to a broader discussion of personal privacy issues – potential doxxing being one example.”

He also said remote meetings will protect board members from the recent COVID-19 resurgence.

The trailer bill passed the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday and awaits a floor vote after Labor Day. If passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Newsom, it goes into effect immediately. 

And while the session ends in two weeks, Laird’s staff told CalMatters he still wants to see his bill passed and in effect by Jan. 1. 

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CalMatters Commentary


Two views on continuing virtual public meetings:

Remote meetings keep powerful boards out of public view, argue Brittney Barsotti, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association, and Scott Kaufman, legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Requiring in-person meetings will reduce public participation, counters Jennifer M. Urban, board chairperson for the California Privacy Protection Agency.

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