This is the December 23, 2021 edition of Boiling Point. It is a weekly newsletter about climate and the environment in California, and the American West. Register hereGet it delivered to your inbox
Six years ago yesterday, Boots & Coots — a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil services giant and Iraq war contractor previously led by Dick Cheney — tried one last time to stop a massive gas leak at the Aliso Canyon storage field north of Los Angeles.
But like the company’s five earlier well-kill attempts, this one failed. Halliburton failed to perform the task that Southern California Gas Co. had asked it to do. The Aliso Canyon blastout lasted almost four years, and became an unprecedented climate disaster.
What went wrong exactly? I tried to answer this question in a story I wrote this week, focused on Halliburton’s claim that key evidence can’t be examined by California investigators because it was only ever stored on a single laptop computer — and that computer was stolen from an employee’s truck in a Best Buy parking lot. The state’s Public Advocates Office is skeptical.
Aliso Canyon is one of many large networks of compressor stations, storage fields, and pipelines that utilities like SoCalGas use for natural gas sales. It’s a network that many climate advocates are trying to eliminate, or at least begin phasing out — with growing amounts of success.
You can see evidence of this success at This wonderful story was written by Evan Halper, my colleagueThe current version of this article is only available to L.A. Times subscribers. Evan writes that more 50 California cities have banned or restricted natural-gas hookups in new homes, businesses, and that this movement is spreading to other parts. New York City.
Evan also sees a chef demonstrate how to use an induction cooktop that is gas-free. He concludes that it “could be a game changer.”
“Induction cooking threatens to undermine the strongest case the natural gas industry has for keeping pipelines flowing into homes and businesses. And the technology keeps improving,” Evan says in a video embeddedThe story.
All of which brings me to this week’s topic of discussion: Tejon Ranch.
If you’ve ever driven north from Southern California on Interstate 5, that name may ring a bell. It’s a huge expanse of mostly undeveloped private property straddling Los Angeles and Kern counties. At 270,000 acres, it’s nearly the size of the city of L.A.
The landowner, Tejon Ranch Co., plans to build 19,333 homes as part of a sprawling residential and commercial development known as Centennial — and as my colleague Louis Sahagún This month’s reportNone of these homes will have gas hookups.
The developer didn’t just wake up one day and decide to ditch gas. A judge Construction block in April, ruling that Centennial’s environmental review was inadequate on several fronts. Tejon Ranch began negotiations with Climate Resolve. The nonprofit that had brought suit successfully, reached an agreement. Settlement agreement. Tejon Ranch also agreed to no gas hookups at Centennial or in a separate residential development it is planning to build in Kern County as part of the agreement.
These homes will have electric heat pumps to heat and cool, as well as induction stoves for cooking.
“It’s fantastic,” said Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, an advocacy group that wasn’t involved in the settlement negotiations. “And it is just the kind of development we’re going to see as standard moving forward here in California, really quickly. It’s what we need to meet our clean energy and climate goals.”
For a long time, the criticism of electric appliances was that they cost more than gas, and could raise housing prices in a state that’s already way too expensive. But the technology is getting cheaper — and not installing gas lines can save money too.
“We think that, down the line, what we will save in infrastructure development by not having to put in all the gas infrastructure and the hookups will offset the cost of going to the all-electric,” Tejon Ranch spokesperson Barry Zoeller told me.
So: Big win for climate, right?
It all depends on who you ask.
When I Tweet about the settlement, I was inundated with responses suggesting Tejon Ranch’s master-planned community would still be terrible for the climate because it’s a poster child for suburban sprawl that forces people to spend ever-more time driving their cars, commuting from home to work or wherever else. California’s largest source of climate pollution is transportation. Nearly 40% of the state’s carbon emissions — about four times as much as gas heating and cooking.
The environmental impact reportCentennial projected that 77,000 vehicles would travel outside the project site every day. Those trips would spew 77,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year — three times as much carbon as would have been produced by the community’s natural gas appliances if Tejon Ranch hadn’t agreed to forgo gas hookups.
That’s one of the main reasons some climate activists oppose Centennial. They say as much as California needs more housing, the only sustainable solution to the state’s housing crisis is density: building more apartments and other residences in areas that are already well populated and well served by public transit. This is how people can live in harmony with one another. Move around easierYou can drive without it.
I asked Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of Climate Resolve, why her group had negotiated with Tejon Ranch rather than try to get Centennial’s approval thrown out in court. She told me Climate Resolve saw this as a game-changing opportunity to show the home-building industry that net-zero emissions — the standard Tejon Ranch has now agreed to meet — is feasible.
“We’re very interested in developing policies that change that calculus for the development industry,” Lindblad said.
It’s also possible that, even after the judge’s unfavorable ruling, Tejon Ranch could have worked with L.A. County to revise the project’s environmental report to the judge’s liking, and gone ahead with construction with no further climate concessions.
There’s an intriguing math question here too.According to an environmental report, Centennial would emit more than 150,000 tons of carbon each year. Critics said that number was a gross underestimate — and as part of the settlement with Climate Resolve, Tejon Ranch agreed to set a much higher number as the baseline from which they must cut.
The company now acknowledges that without the newly agreed-upon efforts to reduce emissions, Centennial would generate 500,000 tons of carbon — triple the original estimate. Around three-quarters would be caused by cars and trucks.
How can Tejon Ranch achieve net-zero carbon emissions with half a billion tons of carbon?
As will electric cars, electric heat pumps will play a part. Tejon Ranch will offer an inflation-adjusted $5,000 incentive to any home buyer or renter who purchases an electric vehicle, for as many as half of the families that live at Centennial — a deal that could cost the developer $48 million. The company will install an EV charging station at every home and in surrounding areas throughout Southern California, including 5,000 homes in low-income, heavily polluted areas.
Other steps included $7,500 incentives to companies to buy electric trucks, $8,000,000 to support electric school and transit buses/vans, and a 100% requirement for clean electricity for the development.
Zoeller also made the case that Centennial won’t generate nearly as many long commutes to and from L.A. — or Bakersfield — as critics fear. He claimed that the development will include strong commercial elements, creating 23,000 jobs.
“Centennial is not this suburban, commuter-type community,” the Tejon Ranch spokesperson told me.
The project’s critics are highly skeptical of that claim, to say the least.
Let’s get back to the math, though. Tejon Ranch acknowledges its project would generate 500,000 metric tons of carbon pollution — but it’s promising to eliminate only half those emissions through steps such as ditching gas and paying residents to buy electric cars. To “mitigate” the other half, the developer can fund off-site projects that reduce pollution, known as offsets.
Carbon offsets don’t have the greatest reputation — especially offsets meant to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by preventing deforestation. Reporters at Bloomberg, Inside Climate NewsThe L.A. TimesThese programs have many flaws, as we have shown.
I asked Danny Cullenward (a leading offsets researcher and policy advisor at CarbonPlan) to take a look into the Tejon Ranch settlement. He told me it gives the developer access to “the vast majority of the private offsets market” — which means, in his view, there’s little guarantee that any of the projects Tejon Ranch funds will make a real difference to the climate.
When I ran that criticism past Climate Resolve’s Lindblad, she told me the settlement will push Tejon Ranch to invest specifically in “new projects that reduce emissions.” It also requires Tejon Ranch to use offsets only as a “last resort” when it’s unable to reduce emissions on site — and only then with the approval of a monitoring group formed by Climate Resolve and the developer.
What do we have left? Tejon Ranch plans to build 19,333 new homes in a state that badly needs more housing, including 3,480 affordable units — while generating up to quarter-million metric tons of climate pollution annually. That’s as much carbon as was produced last year by the Redondo Beach controversial: Gas-fired Power Plant.
Bartholomy is thrilled Centennial is going gas-free — he doesn’t know of any other home development this big being built all-electric. I asked him about suburban sprawl, car trips, and he readily admitted to the problems.
“We haven’t coordinated our housing and our climate policies, and Tejon Ranch is a perfect example of that,” he said. “Electrification is great… But not all future growth is in alignment with our climate policies, or our water realities.”
For more reporting on the shift away from gas — and how SoCalGas is responding — scroll to the bottom of this newsletter.
But first, here’s what else is happening around the West:
“It’s like the gates of hell have been opened.”Carolyn Cole and Susanne Rust, my colleagues, traveled to Alaska to learn more about Alaska. dramatic changes upending some of the world’s most important fisheries as ice melts and the ocean heats up — and why those of us who don’t live in the Arctic should care. Fish and birds are dying en masse, in what scientists describe as less of an ecosystem collapse and more of a “regime shift” with winners and losers. Losers include Pacific cod, Alaska Pollock, and possibly gray Whales. These whales migrate between Baja in the Arctic and are in steep declining, as Susanne & Carolyn indicate. Details in an earlier article.
The Biden administration approved two huge solar farms in the California desert — a reminder that it still has tools to combat the climate crisis, even with the president’s Build Back Better legislation blocked. Here’s my story on the solar farmsThese also serve as reminders that clean energy transition is not without its environmental challenges. And here’s the latest from my colleague Eli Stokols and Chris Megerian on how congressional Democrats and climate activists are responding to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III’s announcement that he won’t support Biden’s far-reaching climate bill. Manchin, as you might recall, has gotten rich from his family’s coal business. He says he’s got no conflict of interest because of a blind trust — but the trust doesn’t cover nearly all of his income from coal, as the Washington Post’s Michael Kranish and Anna Phillips discovered.
The Smith River is California’s last major free-flowing waterway, with no dams. But that doesn’t mean the watershed is in pristine condition — and when ranchland by the river mouth went up for sale, chaos ensued as conservationists scrambled to shape its future. So writes The Times’ Rosanna Xia in a Allen J. Schaben has created a beautiful story with stunning photos. “This collision of interests now coming to a head at Reservation Ranch strikes at the heart of an uncomfortable truth: California, like the great American West, was largely built on violence — violence to not just the land, but also the native people of the land,” Rosanna writes.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
Even though I wrote Thousands of words about rooftop solar last week, there was at least one aspect of the net metering debate I didn’t cover: the avoided cost calculator. Fortunately, Canary Media’s Jeff St. John explained How it works and why it matters. As a reminder of why many clean energy advocates prefer rooftop solar over large solar farms linked to cities by long distance power lines, Hayley Smith, my colleague, reports that state officials reached a $550-million settlement reached with Southern California Edison over five wildfires ignited by the company’s power lines, including the Thomas and Woolsey fires.
The battery boom right now is quite crazy. The Wall Street Journal’s Jennifer Hiller and Katherine Blunt report that the U.S. is on pace to add 6 gigawatts of large battery installations to the power grid this year — up from Last year, less than 1 gigawatt was used. Analysts anticipate that 9 gigawatts more batteries will be online in the next year, most of them of the lithium-ion type. However, not all types of energy storage are experiencing this level of success. The San Bernardino Sun’s Joe Nelson reports that federal officials have Reject again a pumped storage project proposed for Lake Elsinore in California’s Riverside County.
Over the past two decades, at least 1,300 Americans have died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to portable generators.These generators are being used more to keep the lights on and to stay safe in the face of climate-driven extreme weather. However, the industry has managed not to comply with federal safety regulations that experts claim would make their generators safer. That’s the key finding of a A horrifying investigationTexas Tribune, NBC News and ProPublica
Recently, I wrote about the A small numberThe Biden administration has approved renewable energy projects on public lands.The two solar farms I As mentioned earlier add to the total, but there’s also this: The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and Center for Biological Diversity are suing to block a geothermal plant approved by Biden appointees, saying it would dry up a Nevada spring that sustains the Dixie Valley toad and degrade spiritually significant land. More details here from Reuters’ Sebastien Malo.
The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized new rules to reduce carbon pollution from cars and light-trucks. But even though the tailpipe rules are stricter than the Biden administration originally proposed, they’re Still slightly weaker than what the Obama administration tried to implement years ago, according to the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni, Faiz Siddiqui and Anna Phillips. The International Energy Agency has announced that global SUV sales will increase by 5%. Hit an all-time record this year — not great!
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will consider new rules to make sure utilities aren’t charging their customers for trade association dues that are then used for lobbying and other political activities. Here’s the story from Utility Dive’s Ethan Howland. I May, wroteThe Center for Biological Diversity asked the federal commission to address this issue.
AROUND CENTRAL AMERICAN LANDS
To kill mice that inflict harm to an endangered bird called the ashy petrel, the federal government will air-drop poison on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. Yes, this story sounds bizarre. Before the final decision was made, Steve Lopez, a Times columnist, wrote that Some conservationists believe air-dropping poison to be a good idea. Here’s Steve’s Follow-up columnThe plan was approved by the California Coastal Commission. If that’s not enough wildlife news for you, Lila Seidman reported on three bizarre-looking Pacific footballfish — yes, that is their real name— that Washed up deadThis year, California.
Utah’s super-powerful “Prep 60″ lobby has persuaded lawmakers to endorse billions of dollars for water supply projects while largely ignoring conservation, even though that’s much cheaper. That’s the conclusion reached by ProPublica’s Mark Olalde in This is a fascinating investigation into the halls of power in America’s fastest-growing, second-driest state. I also enjoyed This piece by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Joshua Emerson Smith about San Diego County, which has a different problem: Water conservation has been so successful that water rates are rising dramatically, in part to cover the costs of desalination and imports.
A lawsuit filed by California’s attorney general alleges Walmart is dumping nearly 80 tons of hazardous waste in landfills each year. Here’s the story from my colleague Hugo Martín; Walmart denies any wrongdoing. This week, more than 1,300 gallons were also purchased from Pasadena’s Station 76. It was eventually drained into a tributary river of the Rio Hondo River after a vehicle collided with a pump, The Times’ Laura Newberry reports. Residents were advised not to go outside and to shut all windows. In the meantime, Oil sheen the size a football fieldHannah Fry reports that a spotted was seen off the Pacific Coast near the scene of an offshore spillage.
A FEW MORE THINGS
Returning to our discussion from earlier, there’s little question electrification is moving full steam ahead.
The California Building Standards Commission was established last week. Approved a new building code that makes electric heat pumps the baseline for compliance — not quite a Gas banNew construction is not permitted, but this policy could lead some builders to go entirely electric. In an effort to protect the public, the new regulations require stronger ventilation in kitchens equipped with gas stoves. indoor air pollution.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission, meanwhile, has Proposed ending a practice in which gas utility ratepayers — i.e. customers of SoCalGas, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric — cover some of the costs of extending gas lines to new homes.
And it’s not just government:. Southern California Edison announced this week it’s Asking permission$677 million to encourage people to switch to electric heat pumps.
It’s been almost three years since I SubmittedEdison and SoCalGas were heading for a confrontation with each other, with the utilities pushing for different visions of the Golden State. When I asked SoCalGas about Edison’s new proposal, I was told by spokesperson Christine Detz that “we look forward to reviewing that and offering feedback through the established [utilities commission] process.”
But, consider this: SoCalGas released a new product in October. ReportHere are four visions of what the state might do to achieve net zero climate pollution by 2045. In one scenario, almost every sector of the economy goes fully electric — a vision the company unsurprisingly rejected as too expensive and too vulnerable to power outages on the electric grid. But in the other three, between 50% and 95% of buildings eventually use electric space and water heating — and SoCalGas suggested all three scenarios are reasonable.
This could lead to SoCalGas being unable to provide natural gas to homes as much business.However, the company sees a significant part in itself supplying cleaner fuels such green hydrogen biomethaneto power plants that can ignite when the sun sets, and to heavy-duty trucks and industries that are costly to electrify. Scott Drury, SoCalGas Chief executive, wrote in an op-ed for CalMatters, “The electric and gas systems aren’t competitors. Instead, they complement each other’s strengths.”
None of that means the nation’s largest gas utility is embracing a future in which its shareholders make less money.
But in a sign that SoCalGas sees its business potentially shifting away from residential customers, the company joined with PG&E and SDG&E this week to say it doesn’t opposeEnding ratepayer subsidies to gas line extensions to new houses. The gas utilities did, however, object to eliminating those subsidies for new gas lines to non-residential customers, saying ratepayers should continue to pay for projects “that provide environmental or financial benefits” — such as supplying hydrogen or biomethane.
There are changes in attitudes toward SoCalGas. When I wrote about the company’s efforts to drum up opposition to all-electric buildings Back in 2019, I discovered that Climate Resolve — the group that negotiated the Tejon Ranch settlement — had HonoredAfter accepting $86,500 from four gas companies funding in the previous four years, a SoCalGas executive has been recognized for his efforts on climate change.
Climate Resolve has since adopted a PolicySoCalGas should not be paid.
“We didn’t want any misconceptions conflating the intake of SoCalGas money to be perceived as a false indication that we were in support of a prolonged natural gas industry,” Lindblad said in an email.
That’s the third environmental nonprofit to tell me it’s stopped accepting SoCalGas funding, following Pacoima Beautiful Heal the Bay. I wouldn’t call that an overwhelming trend. But it’s certainly an intriguing data point in a storyline full of them.
We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter please forward it to your friends or colleagues.
For the record: Last week’s edition said new monthly utility bill fees proposed by the California Public Utilities Commission would be “a bit less” for low-income homes that install solar panels, “except in San Diego.” The fees would actually be substantially less if not nonexistent for low-income homes, including in San Diego.