The administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom has imposed a de-facto moratorium on hydraulic fracturing while it studies permitting procedures for the politically controversial oil well-completion technique better known as fracking.
State records show not one frack job has been approved in California since June 28, about two weeks before Newsom ordered the state's top oil regulator fired. The dismissal was carried out partly because of a spike in fracking permits during the first half of this year, when approvals were coming at an average of about 35 per month.
The indefinite halt to fracking permitting, which impacts Kern County far more than anywhere else in the state, is not altogether surprising in light of Newsom's stated concerns about fracking and increased pressure by environmental activists to end the practice and in-state oil production itself.
Even so, the unannounced moratorium renews regulatory uncertainties thought to have been resolved when state lawmakers voted in 2014 to put in place California's first rules governing fracking.
Fracking injects sand, water and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals deep underground at high pressure to open petroleum deposits. It has been done in California for at least five decades, mostly in Kern, the heart of West Coast oil production.
Environmentalists contend the practice risks harming groundwater and air quality. Industry groups insist there is no evidence of environmental damage from fracking in California, where unique geology means the practice uses less water and energy than it does in the Midwest, South and East Coast.
Records show all 213 frack jobs approved between January 1 and June 28 were to take place in western Kern. Those permits were given to just three companies: Bakersfield-based Aera Energy LLC (163 permits), Bakersfield-based Berry Petroleum Co. LLC (41) and Chatsworth-based California Resources Corp. (9).
Their combined total is roughly the same number of frack jobs approved during all of 2018. Industry officials say the sharp increase in the pace of permitting during the first half of this year results from the resolution of a bottleneck in the state approval process.
There was no word when permitting of frack jobs would resume. Newsom's office did not respond to a request for comment, but Lisa Lien-Mager, deputy secretary for communications at the California Natural Resources Agency, said by email the halt in permitting of frack jobs is temporary.
"The administration has been working to develop a thorough understanding of the permit approval process to ensure all permits meet regulatory requirements. That accounts for what’s been happening for the past couple of months," she wrote.
The interruption has come five years after state lawmakers and former Gov. Jerry Brown put into place a series of new rules believed to be the strictest fracking regulations in the nation, if not the world. They include groundwater and seismic monitoring requirements, as well as rules on well casing intended to ensure the process does not pollute groundwater.
In mid-July, Newsom ordered the firing of State Oil and Gas Supervisor Ken Harris, a Brown-administration holdover who had run the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
At the time, Newsom expressed two concerns about the way DOGGR was operating: an increase in fracking since January, which the governor said he had been unaware of, and revelations that senior agency officials owned stock in the oil companies they were regulating.
"The governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction," Newsom's chief of staff, Ann O'Leary, wrote in a letter ordering Harris' dismissal.
In a Sept. 6 interview with The Californian, Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, said officials there had recently stepped back to understand how fracking permits are granted.
"That may have created some slowdown in permit approvals," Crowfoot said.
He said oil industry people he had spoken with about the slowdown expressed support for the agency's review, saying they wanted the permitting process to be above reproach.
One of the environmental groups whose research on DOGGR employees' stock holdings and permitting spike prompted Harris' dismissal applauded the halt to permitting.
"It might signal that the governor is serious about beginning the long overdue, just transition away from dirty fossil fuels toward a safer and healthier future,” Hollin Kretzmann, a lawyer for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said by email.
Local oil producers generally see the permitting interruption more as an inconvenience than an impediment.
Aera spokeswoman Cindy Pollard said the situation challenges the company's ability to be flexible. But because Aera plans long-term, she said it hasn't presented much of a problem so far.
"It would take a sustained period of no permits before you would begin to see impacts," Pollard said. "And because of the flexibility we have to do other work in the business, … that (the permitting halt) is not an impact to us."
She said the company respects the state's right to take whatever time is necessary to review fracking permit applications, consistent with California's existing regulations, and added the company has dozens of frack permits awaiting final state approval.
A spokesman for Berry Petroleum said by email the permitting interruption has not impacted the company's operations and will not affect its plans for at least the remainder of this year or 2020. He added Berry has no fracking permits applications awaiting state approval.
Spokesman Todd Crabtree said no one from any state agency reached out to Berry to discuss the interruption in permitting. He said industry groups have asked when permitting will resume but that no answer has been provided.
"We do not believe the halt in permit approvals is unexpected given the current vacancy at the head of DOGGR and the governor’s desire to deliver a greener energy policy," Crabtree wrote. "As a local energy producer, Berry hopes a resolution can be accomplished in a manner that won’t negatively impact jobs, local economies and affordable energy for all Californians."
California Resources Corp. spokeswoman Margita Thompson said by email that less than one-tenth of the company's oil wells use fracking and that the company has five permits pending final approval by the state.
"Since our hydraulic fracturing permits meet the regulatory requirements, we expect the state to issue them in accordance with SB-4," she wrote, referring to 2014's Senate Bill 4, the legislation that sets forth fracking regulations in California.
Thompson went on to note that while CRC has experienced a 90 percent drop in frack jobs since the bill was enacted, other states have seen a dramatic jump in such operations, including an eight-fold increase in Colorado, to 1,941 frack jobs in 2018.