In politics it’s hard to believe in coincidence, but it’s even harder to believe in anything else…especially when money is involved. So when Santa Monica’s Consumer Watchdog released a report that detailed nearly $10 million twenty-six energy companies donated to Governor Jerry Brown and the California Democrat Party over eight years I found it hard to believe the money flowed from a simple interest in “civic responsibility.” Some of the deals are fairly routine, like one tied to last year’s SB 350 that granted Pacific Gas & Electric access to a regional grid; three weeks later the utility donated $130,000 to California’s Democrat Party. Another was more elaborate and involved an old friend: Gray Davis. The lawyer for investor-owned Occidental Petroleum reportedly convinced California’s governor to fire a pair of regulators who were holding up oil waste injection permits. After a new supervisor was appointed Occidental got its permit then later donated $500,000 to support 2012’s Proposition 30.
There was a response to Brown’s Dirty Hands from the governor’s office, but it’s more distraction than denial. “The governor’s leadership on climate change is unmatched,” spokesman Evan Westrup said. “These claims are downright cuckoo.” Allies have also pointed to support from green interests and energy industry donations to Republicans as a way to keep this pitter-patter from growing into a thunderstorm. But a cursory review of the decisions does not show anything directly connected to climate change. There are deals related to legislation that would have reformed the Public Utilities Commission, the approval of a natural gas-fired power plant, as well as some PUC appointments, settlements, and decisions. A key example is 2013’s SB 4 that would have included a set of fracking regulations; the bill passed with an amendment that erased a moratorium on related permits. Chevron could have donated $135,000 to California Republicans, but they don’t have the political muscle to amend and sign that bill.
Jerry Brown does have some public credibility as a climate justice advocate. He signed a 2015 executive order that called for a 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. The erstwhile Jesuit seminarian made a highly publicized trip to last year’s Paris climate conference, won passage of the bill that set a 50% baseline for public consumption of renewable energy, but lost a related battle with Assembly Democrats over a 50% cut in gasoline use. The governor’s green candy coating is impressive, but it’s drawing attention away from some inconvenient truths that are relatively innocuous on their own: he refused to back a statewide ban on fracking, several top aides worked for Pacific Gas & Electric, his sister Kathleen is still on the board of Sempra Energy, and he dispatched state regulators with instructions to survey family property so they could discover its potential value for mining and oil drilling. If all four were sewn together they might be enough to raise an eyebrow. But wait, there’s more.
Another case listed in Brown’s Dirty Hands involves the San Onofre facility. On the same day the California Democrat Party received a $130,000 donation from SC Edison former PUC President Michael Peevy cut a deal with the utility that billed customers for 70% of the $4.7 billion it cost to shutter the failed nuclear plant. The governor contacted Edison’s CEO in an email and wrote he would praise the company for its handling of the closure. What follows is food for doubt. A Superior Court judge had ruled that 65 contested emails were covered by the state’s open records laws and could be reviewed; San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre had been demanding access, mainly to discern the extent of Governor Brown’s involvement in the San Onofre settlement. District Court Judge Anthony Kline, an old friend of the governor, dismissed the lower court’s ruling then quietly stepped away from the case. It’s true that Consumer Watchdog’s report doesn’t offer any proof of collusion, but there is plenty of cause for suspicion.
cartoon provided by the St. Louis Post Dispatch