By Phil Willon, LOS ANGELES TIMES
July 12, 2019
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday defended firing California’s top oil industry regulator for issuing too many hydraulic fracturing permits, but offered no details on whether he plans to ban or limit the oil extraction process in the state.
Newsom’s chief of staff fired Ken Harris, the head of the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, on Thursday after revelations that, during the governor’s first six months in office, the state approved fracking permits at twice the rate it did in the year before under former Gov. Jerry Brown.
Newsom, who opposes fracking, said he was unaware that so many permits had been issued by the agency, known as DOGGR. The Democratic governor said his administration is still in the process of reshaping California’s executive agencies, adding that he has been consumed with crafting his first state budget, dealing with the aftermath of the Pacific Gas & Electric bankruptcy, and other pressing issues.
“There’s a lot of things that, unfortunately, come to your attention with a government as large as ours,” Newsom told reporters during a morning news conference inside his Capitol office. “I don’t think anyone who was paying attention, including the individual that’s no longer there, is unaware of my position on fracking. I’ve been very explicit about it.”
Newsom’s actions follow a report by two environmental and consumer advocacy groups, FracTracker Alliance and Consumer Watchdog, which found that along with the increase in fracking permits, a number of California’s top oil regulators and officials held investments in major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil and Chevron. The findings were first reported by the Desert Sun newspaper.
“We support the governor's decision to eliminate the regulators who have these conflicts of interest, so the regulators are able to act in the best interests of the public health of Californians,” Kyle Ferrar of FracTracker Alliance told The Times.
During his campaign for governor, Newsom vowed to “tighten” state oversight of fracking and oil extraction in California, which is the fifth-largest crude oil producer among the nation’s 50 states. When he took office he also promised to accelerate California’s transition to 100% renewable energy.
Newsom has not taken action to curtail fracking. On Friday, the governor said he does not have the authority to impose a moratorium on permits for fracking, a process that uses drilling and large volumes of high-pressure water to extract gas and oil deposits.
“Legally, the governor of California cannot do that. I explored that during my transition,” Newsom said. “What we have done is we fired the person responsible for signing those permits at DOGGR, and I’ll be appointing a replacement that shares my values and not the values that were expressed in his actions.”
He declined to say if he issued a directive to DOGGR to curtail fracking permits.
The governor said the conflict-of-interest allegations against oil regulators cannot be excused. Newsom said he was “very angry” about the number of fracking permits approved but acknowledged that they were properly issued.
“To the extent that they did things legally, apparently, that was the one thing there they did legally,” he said. “But there were questions about ethical lapses and conflicts of interest and people owning stock in companies they were overseeing.”
Since his election in November, Newsom has been pressured by environmental advocates to ban new oil and gas drilling in California and completely phase out fossil fuel extraction in the state.
Newsom also said that, despite his strong support for putting California on a path to a 100% renewable energy supply, it would be unrealistic to think that California can just stop its dependence on oil and gas.
“I know some people just want to turn things off and not deal with the consequences, and I get that. But you can’t do that,” Newsom said.
Newsom noted that his recently approved budget includes $1.5 million to study ways to reduce petroleum demand and production in the state, taking into consideration the impact on the economy, jobs and Californians.
Phil Willon covers Gov. Gavin Newsom and California politics for the Los Angeles Times. He reports from Sacramento and his previous assignments included the 2018 governor’s race and the 2016 U.S. Senate race. Before heading north, Willon covered Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and roamed Southern California’s mountains and deserts as the paper’s state correspondent in the Inland Empire. Prior to joining The Times, Willon served as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Tampa Tribune. At the Tribune, Willon also covered Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, Hurricane Andrew and the investigation leading to the arrest of serial killer Danny Rolling. He began his newspaper career as the Kent Island correspondent for the Capital in Annapolis, Md. Willon grew up in Southern California and graduated from UC San Diego.