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Citing climate consensus, state's top regulator offers detailed explanation of why he denied Aera fracking permits

Ask a question and sometimes the answer that comes back makes you regret having raised the issue in the first place.

Something like that may have happened earlier this month after Bakersfield-based oil producer Aera Energy LLC sent an email to the state's top oil regulator asking why, exactly, he recently denied the company's applications to perform 35 frack jobs in western Kern County.

State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk responded Sept. 16 with a 3½-page letter that doesn't just state, in the middle of Page 3, that he has discretion to reject well applications as he sees fit. It also takes Aera through a carefully footnoted explanation of climate change's impacts on health, the environment and the economy.

Ntuk's letter reads like a treatise on Gov. Gavin Newsom's justifications for coming down as hard as he has on in-state oil production. It arrived the same month Kern County sued the governor over what it contends is an overreach of his authority and an unfair, anti-oil hit to local government.

When Ntuk initially rejected Aera's applications to frack its oil wells, he offered relatively concise explanations citing his discretion to deny permits "to prevent, as far as possible, damage to life, health, property and natural resources" and to "protect public health and safety and environmental quality, including (the) reduction and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the development of hydrocarbon ... resources."

But this time, Ntuk held forth with a detailed summary of the scientific consensus that climate change is real, dangerous and caused by combustion of petroleum.

"Fossil fuel combustion is one of the chief drivers of climate change," the letter stated. "Thus, the production of fossil fuels is directly correlated to the public health impacts associated with climate change."

AERA'S RESPONSE

Aera was unimpressed. In an emailed statement, the company said it recognizes the challenge climate change poses for society and policymakers. It said it wants to be a partner in California's energy future "by producing safe, responsible, affordable energy while leveraging technology to play our part in the energy transition."

It went on to say the state's residents rely on affordable energy to get to school and work every day and to help their businesses grow and thrive "even as the state works toward a lower-carbon future."

Noting as well that fracking has been validated by state-commissioned studies, Aera wrote that it believes that "declining these permits to reduce California production will only displace the location of oil production, not reduce demand."

Fracking, which is done more frequently in Kern than anywhere else in California, blasts water, sand and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals underground to open petroleum deposits. Environmental activists assert it fouls air and water, while the oil industry says there is no evidence of damage under the state's strict rules on the process.

UNEQUIVOCAL CONSENSUS

Ntuk, head of CalGEM, the California Geologic Energy Management Division, noted in his letter that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated "with over 95 percent confidence" in 2013 that human activity caused more than half of the recorded global temperature increases during the last six decades.

"There is unequivocal scientific consensus that climate change is happening," he stated, "and that human activity is the primary driver."

He wrote that children's health, in particular, has suffered because of rising temperatures, and concluded fossil fuel production is directly correlated to climate change-associated public health problems.

To this he added that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized in January 2020 that combustion of fossil fuels "wreak(s) havoc on Earth's climate if unchecked" and that there is substantial evidence that a government failure to alter existing policies "may hasten an environmental apocalypse."

The letter discussed human-health and natural damage caused by heat waves, noting that eight of the largest 20 fires in state history took place during the last three years. Ntuk also wrote that the ongoing drought threatens California's $50 billion agricultural industry.

LEGISLATIVE DIRECTION

He pointed to the state Legislature's express recognition of the threats posed by global warming, including in 2016's Senate Bill 32, which calls for a 40 percent cut in statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 2031.

His agency, he asserted, has a "central role" in making sure the activities it regulates align with California's environmental, public health and climate-change goals.

"CalGEM must exercise the discretion the Legislature granted it to balance these priorities in regulating well stimulation treatments" such as fracking, Ntuk stated.

Citing state codes, he wrote that lawmakers have given the division responsibility for making sure oil and gas production is carried out in a way that safeguards the health and safety of California residents "and furthers the state's climate change and clean energy goals." He added that it is CalGEM's duty to encourage the "wise development" of oil and gas resources.

His final paragraph sums things up with a defense of his discretionary decisions to reject Aera's applications.

"Given the increasingly urgent climate effects of fossil fuel production, the continuing impacts of climate change and hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) on public health and natural resources, and my duties ..., I could not in good conscience exercise the discretion entrusted to me to grant Aera Energy's (fracking) permits," he wrote.