Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered the firing of California's top oil regulator after environmental activists reported a recent spike in state fracking permits and allegations that senior officials within the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources own stock in petroleum companies they oversee.

The governor's order, first reported late Thursday by The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, highlights tense relations between Kern's leading industry and environmentalists intent on shutting down petroleum production statewide.

In a letter Thursday afternoon to Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Newsom's chief of staff, Ann O'Leary, said the governor wants State Oil and Gas Supervisor Ken Harris dismissed and an acting supervisor appointed.

The letter also instructed Crowfoot to make sure DOGGR officials and contractors "who own any oil or gas stocks" recuse themselves from permitting decisions until they are cleared by a conflict-of-interest review based on new rules being created by the division's parent agency, the Department of Conservation.

O'Leary further ordered Crowfoot to "continue at full pace" his ongoing investigation into claims DOGGR employees own interests in energy companies, "which would constitute actual or apparent conflicts of interest, and take the maximum disciplinary action appropriate under law."

"The governor is taking these actions today because he has learned that since January 2019 well stimulation (fracking) permits have increased without his knowledge," the letter states. "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."

"In the weeks ahead," she continued, "our office will work with you to find new leadership of DOGGR that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly."

DOGGR did not respond to requests for comment.

INDUSTRY RESPONSE

The Western States Petroleum Association, one of California's leading oil trade groups, attributed the surge in fracking permits to the resolution of a bottleneck in the approval process.

Additionally, WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd defended the state's regulatory approach in a written statement, while also calling for strict adherence to established guidelines of professional behavior.

"Our industry produces energy under the toughest environmental, health and safety standards in the world," she stated. "As important as oil and gas production is to our state’s energy future and the communities in which we operate, all involved should be held to the highest standards of conduct.”

Another trade group, the California Independent Petroleum Association, issued a statement saying Newsom can appoint the people he deems best for the job. But it also asserted he "should reject the activists who want to end domestic production of oil and simply import more crude from Saudi Arabia. That just hurts the Central Valley and its workers."

NEWSOM'S OIL STANCE

Thursday's letter is the latest indication Newsom is taking a more anti-oil stance than his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown.

The oil industry underwent an uncomfortable regulatory overhaul under Brown but was able to stave off calls by environmentalists and coastal lawmakers for a halt to drilling. Earlier this year, the governor earmarked $1.5 million for a study that would look for ways to cut California’s domestic oil supply.

Harris' removal represents a sharp reversal in fortunes for California's oil industry since 2011. That year, Brown fired DOGGR chief Elena Miller under pressure from Kern politicians echoing industry charges she was taking too long to issue oil field permits.

Bakersfield oilman Chad Hathaway, in an email Friday morning, called Harris' dismissal a "serious injustice," saying action was taken based on media reports with no government investigation.

"DOGGR has been constantly attacked, had other agencies assigned to review all their work and has been constantly turned over via political grandstanding," Hathaway wrote. He added that if the dismissal is an indication of how Newsom will work with the state's oil industry, "the energy future of California is in a very dangerous position."

‘DANGEROUS POSITION’

State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said in a written statement the governor should have conducted a full investigation before firing Harris.

"(Newsom) is allowing trial lawyers and radical environmentalists to run roughshod over an industry that employs more than 300,000 people in this state and is integral to the Central Valley economy," she stated.

“This is a serious injustice," she continued, "and if it is indicative of how the governor chooses to work with the oil industry, the future of California’s economy is in a very dangerous position.”

Another local lawmaker, Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, offered a softer response.

"Every governor has the prerogative to choose who they best see fit to lead state agencies," he said. "In my district, working people are just trying to find good paying jobs to support their families. I hope that Governor Newsom listens to the facts and science when making these decisions, not the political pressures of the moment.”

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

On Thursday, a coalition of consumer and environmental groups called Last Chance Alliance pointed to public filings showing a number of top DOGGR employees held substantial investments in oil companies.

The group also took issue with the agency's longstanding practice of hiring from the ranks of California oil producers. In years past, DOGGR defended the practice as the only way to meet increased staffing requirements while also putting in place employees with a working knowledge of technical oilfield matters.

Additionally, the coalition noted DOGGR approved 2,365 new petroleum well permits and 191 fracking permits between Jan. 1 and June 3. While the total well authorizations were up about 30 percent from a year earlier, the fracking permits more than doubled over the same period in 2018.

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a well-completion technique in which sand, water and a small concentration of sometimes toxic chemicals is pumped underground at high pressure to release oil and gas deposits. Environmentalists contend the practice risks harming groundwater and air quality.

In a news release, one of the coalition's members, Kyle Ferrar, western program coordinator for FracTracker, called for an end to California oil permitting, linking it to global climate change and reports drilling threatens the health of nearby residents.

"Given that Governor Newsom has expressed concerns over climate change and its impact on Californians' health and well-being, he would be wise to use this opportunity to lead his administration in reducing extractive oil and gas activities within the state, rather than continuing to grant permits," Ferrar wrote.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

(16) comments

ccaliban

I can't believe the San Francisco trust fund babies get to walk all over the working people in the valley. Too bad that initiative to split up California didn't go through.

jMATTIII

The article's premise is that Gavin is firing the Chief of DOGGR due to potential conflicts of interest arising from disclosure by "environmentalists" who have the State's and World's best interest in mind? FYI: The Chief of DOGGR is appointed by the Governor. Does "firing" the current Chief, appointed by the previous Governor, Jerry Brown, appease or "pay back" their detractors who you are beholden to? If that is the case, then we already have precedence. Jerry Brown did the same to a previous Chief of DOGGR appointed by the outgoing Governor, Ronald Reagan, in 1976. False allegations were made that proved untrue. It was "misappropriation of funds" back then. Today it is the "allegation" of the "potential for conflict of interest". The individual is accused in a front page article and once absolved, a couple of lines on the back page are published and an agreement is reached for the individual to leave (verbal between lawyers). This is political theater for Gavin to offer cover for a host of reasons. Instead, let's ask some questions: Who is Gavin beholding to for this same method of termination? Did that Chief rule against an accuser's financial interests? Who will the replacements connected to? Who will benefit by their appointment. Oil related revenues are a huge financial contribution to the State budget. They are also a huge contributor to the Getty family and the other elite families who conspired and funded his being elected Governor. Ask Gavin who paid for his education to Santa Clara and backed his foray into the wine making business. So how does the Governor balance his need to take care of family, the State budget, political appointments and job retention while appearing tough on environmental issues. Using the "environmentalism" angle gets national attention which one will need for their 2024 presidential bid. How will you balance all of your "conflicts of interest"? Thank you governor for looking out for us with your decisive handling of this situation....

MojaveFlyer

And the hits to Kern county keep on coming. Its Sure has turned into a ses pool. And you all are paying 1.800 to 2.400 a month to rent and live there? On 12.00 an hour wages? LOL...nutty Buggersfield.

REMUDA

" . . . environmental activists . . . " (?) ---- Oh boy, they still 'bike to work' . . . ? ------- "Drill now . . . drill here . . . drill often . . . !" ------ And does anyone know how much Newsom has invested in oil . . . ? -------- Let me tell ya . . . ! ------ "Drill now . . . drill here . . . drill often . . . !" (Gavin Newsom) "Green Mayor Gavin" (?) --- 2010, According to the mayor's most recently filed economic disclosure statement, last year the couple invested between $10,000 and $100,000 in Transocean Inc. --- The Jennifer Lynn Siebel Trust also listed a half dozen other $10,000-to-$100,000 energy-related investments, including stock held last year in three companies involved in oil and gas exploration: Dorchester Minerals, Resolute Energy and Schlumberger Ltd. The portfolio also includes stock in Petroleo Brasileiro, Brazil's largely state-owned oil company that has been looking to the United States to help finance exploration of a huge offshore oil discovery near Rio de Janeiro. In all, the couple's 2009 trust portfolio listed 43 investments that, in addition to energy, included some of the biggest players in finance, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and health care. The trust produced more than $100,000 in income last year for the couple, according to the report." ---- (https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Gavin_Newsom)

Thomas Murphy

Even more disturbing is his investments in green technology. The governor has a clear conflict in aligning his personal financial investments with state policy and should resign!

REMUDA

Roger that, Tom . . . & ---- A "New"som beginning . . . for 'Spavined Gavin' . . . ? ----------- http://chng.it/FWfnFJJF8t

MorrisGrove

Ironic that California Senator Shannon Grove is complaining about this, she is the most corrupt person in the state. She lowered air quality standards, gave kids asthma

The Jackal

This is great news. The Kern County planning director issued thousands of these fracking permits. A RICO lawsuit was filed against her and her oil partners in 2015. She probably caused those earthquakes in Ridgecrest. The Wastewater disposal causes earthquakes according to the USGS.

Thomas Murphy

Congratulations! You and Led Zeppelin fan’s level of stupidity in suggesting that fracing and water disposal are responsible for the major earthquakes near Ridgecrest is mind-numbingly stupid and has literally eroded in my faith for humanity! Do you even know where the nearest fraced well or water disposal well is located to that area? Only on the opposite side of the Sierras hundreds of miles away.

GetReal2

Guess if as Governor you can't end fossil fuel consumption but you are super concerned with making a positive Climate Change progressive political statement, you can fire a high profile person. Great work. Governor advances his Green Agenda by Firing a Person.

Gary Crabtree

If Newsom wants to shut down oil production and with Kern County being the largest county in the state for production, then he must subsidize the county for loss of tax revenues from the state treasury or his own or his aunt's personal fortune. Time to revisit creation of two states with all agricultural and petroleum producing counties in one and the rest (elites) in the other.

Ledzepplin4800

Interesting , more so if this Excessive permitting has resulted in a large amount of Frak production work that could ultimately been responsible for our new quakes ?

KenWitham

How could oil extraction assisted by hydraulic fracturing in western Kern County cause earthquakes in eastern Kern County? This comment makes no sense and is nothing short of reckless. Based on your comment, maybe all of the wind turbines in Tehachapi and its surrounding area caused the earthquake? Or maybe earthquakes just happen on their own and don't get caused by oil extraction or wind farms.

Thomas Murphy

This is literally one of the dumbest things I have ever heard in my life! Your user name brings shame to Zeppelin too.

PedoHater

Great job Gov! Keep up the good work!

yorkies2014

that's music to my ears.......good day to hug a tree..thank you.... Gavin

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