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CPUC lawyers accuse SoCalGas of campaign to stall Aliso Canyon gas leak probe

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CPUC lawyers accuse SoCalGas of campaign to stall Aliso Canyon gas leak probe

Lawyers representing California's utility regulator accused Southern California Gas Co. of deploying "antics" to distract the commission amid an ongoing investigation into the company's responsibility for the massive 2015 methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility.

Legal counsel for the California Public Utilities Commission on Dec. 23 took SoCalGas to task for its monthslong effort to delay the probe over a CPUC investigator's alleged conflict of interest. The lawyers urged the administrative law judge overseeing the proceeding to dismiss SoCalGas' conflict claim, calling it "frivolous" and a waste of the commission's time and resources.

"SoCalGas is playing 'Squirrel!!!' with the Commission by attempting to deflect from its failure to properly operate and maintain its Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, which resulted in the largest methane gas leak in the history of this country. The Commission should put a stop to SoCalGas' antics," CPUC lawyers Nicholas Sher and Darryl Gruen said in the filing, using an unconventional reference to a talking dog from the Pixar movie "Up" who is easily distracted by squirrels.

SoCalGas did not immediately return a request for comment.

The latest flare-up in the contentious proceeding revolves around SoCalGas' attempt to strike from the record a declaration from the investigator, Kenneth Bruno, who claims in a personal injury suit against the company that his leukemia is linked to his work at the Aliso Canyon site. The CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division said a timeline provided by Bruno in the declaration — attached to its Nov. 26 filing — undercuts SoCalGas' repeated assertions that he may have meddled in a root cause analysis of the accident for his own gain.

SoCalGas noted that administrative law judge Timothy Kenney earlier dismissed from the record a document containing the same declaration on procedural grounds. CPUC lawyers argued that does not mean the court is barred from considering Bruno's account and alleged SoCalGas is "desperate to keep pertinent facts from the Commission."

"If granted, SoCalGas' motion would arguably lead to the filing and 'weaponizing' of prohibited ex parte communications to specifically banish relevant facts from the record forever," the lawyers said. "Such makes a mockery of the Commission's rules and leads to untenable outcomes."

The dispute over Bruno has bogged down the CPUC's investigation for months, as California has requested reams of documents regarding Bruno from the CPUC, and the regulator has sought to identify and interview the SoCalGas representative behind the allegations about Bruno.

The proceeding progressed to some degree Dec. 13, when Kenney and fellow administrative law judge Marcelo Poirier ruled that SoCalGas does not have to reimburse California for the cost of previous and ongoing investigations into the Aliso Canyon accident, at least for the time being. The CPUC had requested reimbursement earlier in the proceeding, and SoCalGas objected.

However, the judges ordered SoCalGas to establish a memorandum account to track CPUC staff investigation expenses and other costs. They said they will determine whether SoCalGas should reimburse the state in the second phase of the proceeding, after they determine whether the company violated any laws or CPUC decisions, order or regulations.