By Janet Wilson, THE DESERT SUN
January 31, 2020
Jason Marshall, one of California's top oil and gas regulators, is stepping down.
Marshall will resign in mid-February from his post as chief deputy director of the Department of Conservation. In that role, he has overseen the beleaguered Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) as well as the mining division and other key department functions.
Twice in his career, Marshall was also tapped by two governors to step in as acting director of DOGGR, now known as CalGEM.
"After very much difficult contemplation, I have decided that I need to take a new step in my career," Marshall wrote in an email to department colleagues this week that was obtained by The Desert Sun. "My last day with the department will be Friday, Feb. 14."
Marshall, who spent 28 years with the agency, did not respond to requests for comment. As recently as July, he personally led Gov. Gavin Newsom on a tour of one of the largest oil spills in state history, the Cymric 1Y spill west of Bakersfield.
That month Newsom fired oil and gas supervisor Ken Harris and named Marshall as acting supervisor. Harris was ousted a day after The Desert Sun reported that the issuance of new fracking permits had doubled since Newsom took office compared to the pace under theformer governor, Jerry Brown. The Sun also reported that other senior supervisors held personal investments in oil companies the agency regulates.
Marshall has positioned himself as a change agent but was a controversial choice among environmentalists and other critics of the oil agency, who saw Marshall as part of an "old guard" that allowed lax permitting, conflicts of interests and other questionable practices.
“This is a Valentine to environmentalists," said Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate who researches energy issues with the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog (which has probed conflicts of interest at the agency). "This was the other shoe that needed to drop in any major reform of CalGEM."
But Marshall's boss, Department of Conservation Director David Shabazian, praised his "many years of dedicated service" and his "wisdom and counsel on important issues."
"He has worked tirelessly on behalf of the DOC and his fellow Californians," Shabazian said in an email. "When the need arose, he stepped in as acting State Oil & Gas Supervisor and more recently as acting Supervisor of Mine Reclamation in addition to his regular duties. He has chosen to pursue other career options and we wish him all the best. He will be greatly missed.”
Marshall started out as a state government intern after graduating from Claremont McKenna College and worked his way up to legislative director for the Department of Conservation. In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped him as deputy director for the agency.
Both in that post and later as the head of the state recycling program, Marshall played a key role in ramping up beverage container recycling amounts paid to consumers, and oversaw the complex $1 billion beverage container recycling fund, including combating fraud. He expressed pride in his work overseeing agricultural and open space protections, greenhouse gas reductions, updates of seismic maps, as well as mining reclamation policies.
"I leave with nothing but positive memories of our work and of our immense accomplishment," he said, praising department employees.
Marshall's official agency biography states, and he reiterated in his farewell email, that he also oversaw "sweeping reforms" in DOGGR, which on Jan. 1 was renamed the Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM.
"He has been instrumental in the development of California’s hydraulic fracturing regulations, some of the strictest in the nation and a model for rules the U.S. Bureau of Land Management attempted to adopt," the biography reads. "He is a principal co-author of the 2015 DOGGR (now CalGEM) 'Renewal Plan,' which established major reforms to create a regulatory program for oil and gas production under the guiding principles of environmental protection and public safety.”
Marshall issued controversial permits, say critics
But critics said the opposite was true. In 2011, Brown ordered the firing of Derek Chernow as head of the Department of Conservation and Elena Miller as head of DOGGR. Brown selected Marshall to be acting oil and gas supervisor.
Marshall started re-issuing permits to oil companies that critics said sometimes appeared to flout state and federal laws. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had told California it had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by issuing drilling and underground injection control permits above shallow aquifers that might be suitable for drinking water and crop irrigation.
Marshall also oversaw the mining division, and was caught up in a 2014 controversy reported on by The Desert Sun. A state geologist who reported to Marshall was lambasted by him for a finding unfavorable to a mining company. At the request of a company lobbyist to Marshall, the geologist changed the report to make it favorable.
In October, the Desert Sun reported on "dummy" files and questionable oil permits issued by DOGGR. In November, Newsom announced a moratorium on new fracking and high-pressure cyclic steam permits pending reviews by federal researchers. State auditors are reviewing agency permitting practices and the California Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating conflict of interest complaints.
Last fall, Newsom also named a new oil and gas supervisor, Uduak Ntuk, who took office Jan. 1. Almost immediately, he and Marshall began sparring over control of the division and permit reviews, said an employee with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
On Wednesday, Marshall sent his colleagues the email informing them that he would be stepping down.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter with The Desert Sun and is part of the 2020 ProPublica state reporting network.