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State exercises discretion to deny Kern fracking permits ahead of formal ban

California's top oil regulator, acting ahead of a proposed statewide ban on fracking, this week denied a series of applications to use the controversial oilfield technique in western Kern — a decision the Newsom administration said was taken "to reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and respond to the climate emergency."

The rejection of 21 applications filed by Bakersfield-based Aera Energy LLC appears to signal a significant shift away from the administration's earlier policy of basing individual frack-job decisions on technical reviews by state engineers and federal scientists. By contrast, denial letters sent Thursday cite non-specific concerns about health, safety and environmental quality.

Fracking has taken center stage as Gov. Gavin Newsom, facing a recall election Sept. 14, has come under intensifying pressure from environmental groups to slow or cease oilfield permitting as drought, record-breaking heat and other likely effects of climate change become more dire across the Golden State.

Meanwhile, Newsom's toughening stance against fracking has become a flashpoint in the governor's fraught relationship with Kern political leaders who frequently note the oil industry generates thousands of good local jobs while paying millions of dollars per year in taxes that fund county services.

“The governor and CalGEM’s denial of much needed and vital in-state energy production goes against established technical and scientific data," Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, said in an emailed statement. "It will not only force California to be more reliant on foreign sources of energy, but it does direct harm to Central Valley families. We need more affordable and reliable energy produced in California by Californians."

Washington, D.C.-based climate-change activism group Food & Water Watch, on the other hand, called for still more drastic action against California oil production.

“CalGEM is following the science and adhering to its regulatory purpose in denying these fracking permits, but Governor Newsom needs to follow through and instruct his agency to deny all new oil and gas permits immediately,” the group's California director, Alexandra Nagy, said in a statement posted on Facebook. “Frontline communities have just been spared the public health hazards and devastating environmental impact that would have come with the 21 fracking wells under consideration. Unfortunately, CalGEM continues to permit all other oil and gas wells that further harm public health, water and climate."

The procedure also known as hydraulic fracturing injects water, sand and small concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals deep underground to break open underground oil and gas deposits. It is used more frequently in Kern than anywhere else in the state.

Consuming less water on average per procedure in California than elsewhere in the country, fracking has been performed in the state for decades without any documented instance of groundwater contamination. But it has gained infamy nationwide as a source of methane releases and as a prolific producer of petroleum at a time when climate activists are looking to end petroleum production altogether.

EXERCISING DISCRETION

State Oil and Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk informed Aera in a pair of letters Thursday that he has reviewed and "evaluated the quantifiable risk" of the company's applications to frack in the North and South Belridge oilfields.

"In the exercise of my discretion under (state codes)," Ntuk wrote, "… I am denying these permit requests '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.'"

Ntuk added Friday in an email to The Californian, "In the face of the effects of the climate emergency, the risks to everyday Californians are too high to approve these permits."

GOVERNOR'S STATEMENT

A spokeswoman for the governor, Erin Mellon, issued this statement by email Friday regarding the permit denials:

"The governor has been clear that we need to do more to combat the climate crisis and create a healthier future. He has also been clear that he does not see a role for fracking in that future. In April, the Governor directed CalGEM to prepare a regulations to ban new fracking permits by 2024. And the need for change is only more urgent as California is now experiencing accelerated impacts of climate change, from drought to extreme heat events to larger and more intense wildfires.

"The Governor applauds (Thursday’s) action by the State Oil and Gas Supervisor to use his discretion under statute to deny 21 pending fracking permits, which will protect public health and safety and environmental quality and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of many actions the Administration is taking to reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and respond to the climate emergency."

AERA'S RESPONSE

Aera spokeswoman Cindy Pollard said Friday the company has received indications from the state that no further permits for well-stimulation treatments — a category of procedures that includes fracking — will be issued by CalGEM under the Newsom administration despite the oil producer's adherence to the same scientific standards that led to its receipt of 53 California fracking permits last year.

"The governor’s latest actions to deny Aera WST permits and banning all WST permits until the rulemaking to end WST is complete are disappointing though not surprising," she said. "This is the latest decision attacking the oil and gas industry that is based solely on politics rather than sound data or science."

"Scientific studies commissioned by the state and conducted by some of the brightest minds in the world have deemed that hydraulic fracturing is safe and that it does not release hazardous chemicals to surface waters or cause groundwater contamination," she continued. "Banning hydraulic fracturing will only put hard-working people of California out of work and threaten our energy supplies by making the state more dependent on foreign oil. The state should be focused on protecting the economy and people of California while we produce all forms of energy in a manner that protects public health and the environment. The people of California deserve nothing less."

"In the meantime," she went on, "we will evaluate all of our available legal options to ensure the preservation of the WST process as currently allowed by state law under what are already the most stringent regulations in the nation. We will remain focused on protecting the jobs of thousands of men and women who safely and responsibly produce the energy that Californians demand and that powers the economy.”

CONTENTIOUS HISTORY

For more than a decade fracking has been the most politically delicate issue facing California's oil industry. A long process involving rigorous scientific review produced the state's first law specific to fracking in 2013. Among other things, the law required oil producers to institute new measures such as well cementing, groundwater testing and seismic monitoring prior to or during frack jobs.

Under Newsom the process has become even more stringent. He has reorganized and renamed CalGEM, including giving it a new mandate to prioritize human health and environmental safety. The division now requires that permits be independently reviewed by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory prior to final approval for frack jobs.

But environmental activists arguing the procedure is unsafe and promotes global warming have pushed for an end to the practice in California. They have continued to apply pressure on Newsom, who last fall called on the state Legislature to ban fracking altogether.

This spring a bill was introduced in Sacramento that would have prohibited fracking along with several other commonly used procedures. The legislation died after running into opposition from labor groups and others.

Then, in April, Newsom announced the state would ban fracking by Jan. 1, 2024. A month later a draft rule was unveiled to do just that.

POLITICAL PUSHBACK

State Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, issued a news release Friday critical of Thursday's permit denials.

“The attack on oil must end," she wrote in the release. "A California without oil is an implausible dream being pushed by progressive politicians. The governor should protect quality careers and vital tax funding while ensuring Californians have access to affordable and reliable energy."

"By prioritizing locally produced energy that is generated under the toughest environmental protections on the planet," she continued, "you can maintain California’s climate leadership and protect our economy. Phasing out fracking in the state of California only increases our dependence on foreign oil and many of the abysmal regimes that produce it. Kern County produces over 50% of the state’s renewable energy and 70% of our fossil fuels, which keeps California moving with fuel and clean energy. The governor needs to quit trying to fix what isn’t broken and immediately instruct CalGem to approve these 21 fracking permits so we can protect our domestic oil production.”

Kern County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop also criticized the administration's permitting action in an emailed statement.

"Newsom administration energy policies are absolutely crushing the life out of our county, one stunningly egregious decision after another," he wrote. "All of the state's energy goals lead through Kern and our residents are heavily burdened paying the full cost for it all, and the governor knows this, but doesn’t seem to care."

"For most at the state capital," he added, "these decisions are merely paperwork, back slapping and political box scores, at the end of the day. For the people living and working here in Kern County, it’s long-haul loss of quality of life, the loss of tens of thousands of well-paying jobs and hundreds of millions in annual local government revenue."

Added Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group: “I’m not sure why this governor is obsessed with enriching Saudi Arabia, but all he did today was put more Californians out of work and increase our dependence on foreign crude, which by the way, is exempt from reporting and complying with the state’s greenhouse-gas cap and trade program like in-state producers.”