SACRAMENTO -- In a legislative hearing that focused almost exclusively on fears about hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a former scientist rode the support of industry and environmental groups Wednesday to move a big step closer to becoming confirmed as the state's senior oil regulator.
Mark A. Nechodom, a Gov. Jerry Brown appointee who took the oath of office almost a year ago but still requires confirmation by the state Senate, won a 5-0 vote of the Senate Rules Committee -- but not before being given a special homework assignment by the committee's chairman, Sen. Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
Steinberg, unsatisfied with draft fracking regulations released last month by Nechodom's Department of Conservation, told Nechodom to explain in writing exactly how the proposed rules would prioritize public health and safety over the oil and gas industry's need to protect trade secrets -- a reference to the sometimes toxic chemicals pumped underground at high pressure as part of the fracking process. Steinberg said he wanted the explanation in hand before a vote of the full Senate, set for Monday.
"To me, health and safety ought to be preeminent," the senator said.
Joining Steinberg in asking tough questions of Nechodom was Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. She urged Nechodom to be firm with the oil and gas industry on the issue of fracking, saying petroleum producers can be a "very fearsome adversary when they want to be."
Fracking has come under harsh scrutiny around the country for its potential to contaminate groundwater and pollute the air, even as it has shown tremendous value in Kern County and elsewhere as a way of unlocking oil and gas deposits.
Before taking office Jan. 17 of last year, Nechodom worked as senior adviser to the Secretary for Environmental Markets of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Husband to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Nechodom also has a background in renewable energy and climate change.
The position has put Nechodom in charge of four divisions that employ 470 state employees, including the most direct regulator of California oil production, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
In November 2011, Gov. Brown removed Nechodom's predecessor, Derek Chernow, over accusations by Kern oil executives and politicians that DOGGR was holding up approval of oil field projects necessary to continued oil production.
The hostility reflected in those allegations has largely dissipated, evident in the support the industry gave him at Wednesday's hearing.
"He sticks with the science and he collaborates with everyone involved," Blair Knox, representing the California Independent Petroleum Agency, told the committee.
No one testified against Nechodom Wednesday, and only one group -- the Environmental Working Group -- said it was withholding its support of the nominee over concerns about the safety of fracking in California.
Committee member Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, asked Nechodom whether he could win back confidence in the department. When he said he could, she followed up by saying that although "this is not a resume I'd ordinarily be selecting," she had seen progress under his leadership.
Wednesday's hearing included some careful wording by Nechodom in response to repeated questions by Steinberg on whether the new draft regulations would require oil producers to receive permission from the state before they frack.
Nechodom answered that they would have to apply -- though he later clarified that the state's approval would automatically be considered granted unless the department intervened to stop it within 10 days.
Steinberg later asked Nechodom whether he would be willing to ask the Legislature for a new law that would force oil companies to apply specifically for permission to frack. Nechodom answered that he would be willing to have a discussion on such a proposal -- but he would not say whether he would suggest it himself.
That response clearly frustrated Steinberg, who then gave Nechodom a Monday deadline for the written explanation about fracking and public safety.
"It's not that I don't trust you," Steinberg said, adding that he just wanted to see clarification of the draft regulations.
Public safety's precedence over trade secrets, he said, "is not reflected in what's in the public record."