- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A California oil and gas official offered to try to get the governor’s office to quash an order from air pollution regulators that was aimed at a 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 change the order requiring better leak detection and reporting, among other things.

The documents released Thursday under a California Public Records Act request show Bret Lane, the chief operating officer for SoCalGas, forwarded a draft of the air pollution abatement order to an official with one of the state agencies that regulate the company.

Alan Walker, a supervising engineer for the Department of Conservation’s oil and gas division, replied 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 replied. “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.

When the leak was first reported Oct. 23 at the largest gas storage facility in the West, the department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources was in the midst of internal reform. It had been criticized for allowing oilfield contamination to get in federally protected drinking-water aquifers and for having a cozy relationship with the companies it oversees.

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.”

It is not unusual for SoCalGas to work with state agencies as it tries to follow regulations, said Chris Gilbride, a company spokesman.

At the time of the Dec. 29 email exchange, the leak from an aging underground 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 and is not part of state government.

Executives and legal staff for the air district were not contacted by the governor’s office to change or remove any language, spokesman Sam Atwood said. He said the local requirements may go further than state rules. In the end, the final order was largely unchanged and SoCalGas stipulated to it.

Drysdale said Walker was new to the agency at the time of the email exchange with Lane.

“His approach and interaction did not reflect our department’s policies or regulatory role,” Drysdale said.

Walker did not return phone or email messages seeking comment.

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