California’s top oil regulator sacked after doubling fracking permits

California Gov. Gavin Newsom orders dismissal of state’s top oil regulator

By Janet Wilson, Palm Springs Desert Sun, July 11, 2019, 11:09 p.m. ET
California Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his revised 2019 budget proposal May 9, 2019, in Sacramento, California.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom presents his revised 2019 budget proposal May 9, 2019, in Sacramento, California. (Photo: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio)

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday directed his secretary of natural resources to fire Ken Harris, the state’s top oil regulator, after learning from The Desert Sun/USA TODAY and watchdog groups that fracking permits have doubled without his knowledge since he took office and that seven supervisors charged with regulating the industry own shares in major oil companies.

Ann O’Leary, chief of staff to Newsom, sent a letter to Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for Natural Resources, asking him to immediately make several changes in the Department of Conservation, including firing Harris.

Harris is the head of the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, also known as DOGGR. He could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

O’Leary also told Crowfoot to “continue at full pace the investigation you have already started related to the allegations that employees at DOGGR have holdings in energy companies, which could constitute actual or apparent conflicts of interest, and take the maximum disciplinary action appropriate under law.”

Conflicts of interest: Watchdog groups urge California governor to fire oil regulators

Ken Harris, Californiia Oil and Gas supervisor and head of the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources.
Ken Harris, California Oil and Gas supervisor and head of the Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources. (Photo: Calfiornia Dept. of Conservation)

In the meantime, she directed him to ensure that all employees and contractors who own oil or gas stocks recuse themselves from all permitting decisions pending individual reviews based on new conflict rules that are being formulated.

On Wednesday, The Desert Sun reported the pace at which fracking permits are issued has doubled since Newsom took office in January, and thousands of permits for new and re-used oil and gas wells also have been approved, angering environmental and public health groups who hoped for a phase-out of the state’s billion-dollar industry following the retirement of Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Desert Sun also reported on the findings of two watchdog groups, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance, who uncovered records showing that top state regulators and engineers held investments in Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Valero and other petrochemical giants.

Almost half of the 2,300 well permits issued in 2019 have benefited oil companies invested in by agency officials, the consumer groups said.

Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance uncovered the regulators’ personal investments and permit data through public records requests, and the two groups shared the documents with The Desert Sun and the USA TODAY Network.

“This is a good start,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “This shows the governor wants to change the culture at the agency to make sure it’s free of conflicts and safety comes before the oil companies’ interests. The next move has to be to hold accountable Mr. Harris’ supervisors, who were well aware that this was an agency that was permitting wells with the oil companies’ interests first in its mind and the public last.”

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