Official asked utility if it wanted help to quash order

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California oil and gas official offered to try to get the governor’s office to quash an air pollution control order for the utility responsible for a massive gas leak, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Emails related to the four-month Southern California Gas Co. leak that drove thousands of residents from their Los Angeles homes said the governor’s staff discussed the matter, but agency spokesmen said no action was taken to influence air quality regulators.

The documents released Thursday under a California Public Records Act request show Bret Lane, the chief operating officer for SoCalGas, forwarded a draft of an abatement order to an official with one of the agencies that regulate the industry. The order included several requirements for the utility to follow and Lane singled out a section requiring a leak detection and inspection plan.

Alan Walker, a supervising engineer for the Department of Conservation’s oil and gas division, emailed the utility executive that the proposed order was “absolutely crippling.”

“How would you feel about me sharing this with folks up my chain … with a recommendation to have this quashed by the governor,” Walker wrote to Lane.

“I am fine with that idea,” Lane replies. “Thanks Al.”

Walker later replied that the matter was getting a 10-minute discussion with the governor’s staff.

“It is at the highest level I can push right now,” Walker wrote.

There are no further emails after that, but Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the department said the subject was raised on one of many daily conference calls about the Aliso Canyon leak and that Walker’s superiors did not share his concerns and no further action was taken.

At the time of the Dec. 29 email exchange, the leak from a blown-out gas storage well was two months old with no end in sight and the company was under scrutiny from several state and local agencies, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollution through much of Southern California.

Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, said the emails offer an insight into a close relationship between business and government, but not necessarily an improper one.

“The fear is always that government agencies are captured by industries they regulate,” Stern said. “People always figure the worst. All this is, basically, is a company trying to influence an agency that has power over them.”

Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the air district, said the local requirements may go further than state rules.

Atwood said the district was not contacted by the governor’s office to change or remove any language. In the end, the final order was largely unchanged and SoCalGas stipulated to it.

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