LOS ANGELES — A massive gas leak that has spewed billions of pounds of methane into the air in a northern Los Angeles neighborhood, prompting a state of emergency from local officials, has a surprising connection to Governor Jerry Brown.
The natural gas leak, which has forced thousands of residents to flee their homes in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, is spewing 100,000 pounds of methane into the air per hour. That's a quarter of all of California's methane emissions, which are greenhouse gases.
The leak was discovered in October, prompting hundreds of complaints, resident relocations, school closures, lawsuits, flight restrictions, and a condemnation from star lawyer Erin Brockovich — and shows no sign of stopping.
The methane is coming from a ruptured pipe at a storage facility owned by Southern California Gas Co., which in turn is owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy.
Gov. Brown has a number of connections to Sempra. His sister, Kathleen Brown, sits on Sempra's board of directors. She joined the company in 2013, reportedly receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and equity. She also holds $400,000 in stock and last year received a $188,380 salary, the Associated Press reported.
Non-profit watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative first called attention to Kathleen Brown's role at Sempra, and the governor's connections to the company, this week. Kathleen Brown did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment Friday.
But Gov. Brown's connection to Sempra goes even deeper. Campaign finance records show that Brown has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Sempra and Sempra employees going back to at least 2006.
Brown also appointed two high-ranking Sempra representatives to a 2014 trade mission to Mexico.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Sempra said it has "outside, independent board members and we see no conflict."
For many governors, maintaining a relationship with a prominent energy company might not raise eyebrows.
Brown, however, is different. The Golden State governor spent the year touting his green credentials and has specifically singled out methane — the gas leaking near Porter Ranch — as a greenhouse emission he wants to cut. Earlier this month he also was a star attendee at the Paris climate conference — a global gathering that explicitly aimed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Brown traveled to the climate conference as the head of a delegation of state leaders who were sharing information on programs such as cap and trade. The trip was paid for by a non-profit group called Climate Action Reserve.
Climate Action Reserve's board once included Kathleen Brown, and is still staffed by various people with connections to Brown, including former California Gov. Gray Davis.
Davis has a history of representing oil interests, and recently made headlines after a controversy over Brown's firing of two oil regulators. The regulators refused to waive rules for oil companies, and allegedly were terminated on Brown's orders. The incident happened in 2011, and at one point Davis — who according to a lawsuit was representing Occidental Oil — called Brown's office and asked for the firings.
When asked if Kathleen Brown's role at Sempra presented a conflict of interest or influenced the governor, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup responded "absolutely not."
"The state is exercising its full regulatory and oversight authority," Westrup told BuzzFeed News. "The focus is the health and safety of residents, period. To imply otherwise is scurrilous and irresponsible."
Still, the web between Brown, his sister, Sempra, Davis, and Climate Action Reserve offers another illustration of the complicated relationship the governor has with the oil industry. Indeed, while Brown has been hailed by some as a champion in the fight against climate change, many environmentalists have criticized his record and question whether California deserved to be held up as an example to the world.
The Paris talks also proved to be a point of contention; shortly before they began protesters gathered in Sacramento to protest Brown's fracking record. And during the talks themselves, hecklers disrupted an event Brown spoke at, something that was not especially common at the generally staid conference.
Brown himself has been publicly quiet about the massive leak, though Westrup said the governor had sent a letter to the CEO of Southern California Gas Company "regarding the leak and the need for quicker action." In the letter, supplied to BuzzFeed News, Brown notes that efforts to fix the leak have "proven insufficient."
Westrup also pointed to action from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which he said has been working on the leak for weeks.
Officials have contended that despite complaints of health problems, the leak does not pose a risk to the public. Still, the leak has already spewed billions of pounds of gas into the atmosphere, and it is expected to be several more months before it can finally be plugged.
In the meantime, Californians are left contending with what Brockovich recently characterized as a catastrophe that is "the equivalent to the strength of a volcanic eruption."
This article originally stated Brown was "interrupted" during a speech in Paris, but a Brown spokesman later contacted BuzzFeed News to say that the governor had finished speaking when the heckling started, and so the event was therefore "disrupted" instead.