Tag Archives: California Gov. Jerry Brown

Fired regulator: Governor pushed to waive oil safeguards

Repost from the Associated Press

Fired regulator: Governor pushed to waive oil safeguards

By Ellen Knickmeyer, Sep 4, 3:32 PM EDT
AP Photo
FILE – In this Wednesday May 27, 2015 file photo, California Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the California State Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Sacramento, Calif. California’s top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior aides in 2011 that the governor’s orders to override key safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting the state’s groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California’s top oil and gas regulators repeatedly warned Gov. Jerry Brown’s senior aides in 2011 that the governor’s orders to override key environmental safeguards in granting oil industry permits would violate state and federal laws protecting groundwater from contamination, one of the former officials has testified.

Brown fired the regulators on Nov. 3, 2011, one day after what the official says was a final order from the governor to bypass provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and grant permits for oilfield injection wells. Brown later boasted publicly that the dismissals led to a speed up of oilfield permitting.

In a newly filed court declaration, Derek Chernow, Brown’s former acting director of the state Department of Conservation, also alleged that former Gov. Gray Davis urged fellow Democrat Brown in a phone call to fire Chernow and Elena Miller, the state’s oil and gas supervisor.

Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, labeled the allegations “baseless.”

“The expectation – clearly communicated – was and always has been full compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” Westrup said Thursday.

This year, however, the state acknowledged that hundreds of the oilfield operations approved after the firings are now polluting the state’s federally protected underground supplies of water for drinking and irrigation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the state until 2017 to resolve what state officials conceded were more than 2,000 permits improperly given to oil companies to inject oilfield production fluid and waste into protected water aquifers. An earlier AP analysis of the permits found state records showed more than 40 percent of those were granted in the four years since Brown took office.

Chernow’s declaration, obtained by The Associated Press, was contained in an Aug. 21 court filing in a lawsuit brought by a group of Central Valley farmers who allege that oil production approved by Brown’s administration has contaminated their water wells. The lawsuit also cites at least $750,000 in contributions that oil companies made within months of the firings to Brown’s campaign for a state income tax increase.

Westrup denied the oil companies’ support for Brown’s tax-increase campaign was related to the firings, saying, “the governor’s focus is doing what’s best for California, and that’s what informs his decisions.”

Robert Stern, former general counsel of the state’s ethics agency and the architect of a 1970s state political reform act, said there was nothing illegal about Brown receiving the oil industry contributions for his tax campaign unless they were explicitly in return for firing the oil regulators.

Chernow’s statement describes for the first time the alleged back story of the controversial permit approvals. He declined to comment to the AP and Miller did not respond to interview requests.

Brown’s boasting about the firings to speed up permitting is at odds with his image as a leading proponent of renewable energy and reduced fossil fuel consumption. That reputation led to a recent meeting with Pope Francis to discuss climate change.

Westrup said an ongoing effort by Brown to reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the state by up to 50 percent and the oil industry’s fight against elements of Brown’s climate-change campaign shows “where the administration stands and what it’s fighting for.”

The firings occurred as the governor was scrambling to drum up energy sources, jobs and business and to win support for the ultimately successful statewide vote on tax increases to tackle state budget woes.

Today, with the state in the fourth year of drought and a state of emergency declared by Brown, protecting the adequacy and purity of water supplies for farms and cities is a paramount priority.

In the declaration in the farmers’ case, Chernow said he and Miller were under intense pressure from the oil industry as well as the Brown administration to relax permitting standards for injection wells that oil companies use to pump production fluid and waste underground.

Chernow testified he was in the office of John Laird, Brown’s secretary of Natural Resources, in early October 2011 when Laird took a call from Brown. Laird told Chernow that Brown said he had just received a call from Davis, then acting as legal counsel for Occidental Petroleum, the country’s fourth-biggest oil Company.

Brown said Davis and Occidental had demanded Brown fire Chernow and Miller over what Occidental complained was the slow pace of issuing drilling permits, according to Chernow.

Davis declined to comment Thursday.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 2, 2011, Chernow and Miller received a call from Brown’s energy adviser, Cliff Rechtschaffen, who urged the regulators to “immediately fast-track” approval of new oilfield permits, according to Chernow’s filing.

Miller replied that what Brown aides and the oil industry were pressing for “violated the Safe Drinking Water Act, and that the EPA agreed” with that conclusion, Chernow said. In response, according to Chernow, Rechtschaffen told them “this was an order from Governor Brown, and must be obeyed.”

Chernow and Miller were fired the following day.

Memos sent to Department of Conservation staff the next month – obtained through state public records laws by lawyers for the farmers – allegedly detail some ways state oilfield regulators were told they could now bypass some federally mandated environmental reviews and approve permits.

The state, under increasing pressure from the EPA, this year and last ordered the shutdown of 23 improperly permitted oilfield wells posing the most immediate threat to nearby water wells.

Current officials in the Department of Conservation said they believe the actual number of flawed permits granted under Brown is lower than the 46 percent the state records show, but they have not provided alternate figures.

The state improperly issued permits, they said, because of misunderstandings and poor record-keeping, rather than willful decisions by Brown’s administration.

The safeguards at issue in the alleged permitting dispute were a “very fundamental” part of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act’s protections against oilfield contamination, said David Albright, manager of the EPA’s California groundwater office, this week.

California “has a huge amount of work to do” to bring its regulation of oilfield injection wells into compliance with federal law, said Jared Blumenfeld, the regional EPA administrator in California. Blumenfeld cited a “sea change” over the past year in state compliance efforts, however.

Executives of Occidental and Aera Energy at the time thanked Brown for his involvement in the oilfield permitting process, as Occidental CEO Steven Chazren noted in a January 2012 call with financial analysts, two months after top regulators were fired.

That month, Occidental became the first major oil company to come out in support of the Brown’s tax measure and donated the first of $500,000 to Brown’s campaign for the tax referendum. A month later, Aera donated $250,000.

Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman at what is now the independent California spin-off of Occidental, California Resources Council, said that all the farmers’ allegations were “wholly without merit.” Cindy Pollard, spokeswoman for Aera, said the company often donates to revenue-raising state campaigns. “Aera’s contributions were not quid pro quo,” she said.

 

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    California Gov. Brown: keep the oil in the ground

    Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
    [Editor – This report signals a highly significant shift in the discussions surrounding climate change and the oil industry: cut demand … or cut supply?   A must read!  – RS]

    Gov. Brown wants to keep oil in the ground. But whose oil?

    By David R. Baker, July 26, 2015 8:16pm
    California Gov. Jerry Brown, right,  delivers his speech flanked by the head of the pontifical academy of Science, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, during  a conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change in the Casina Pio IV the Vatican, Wednesday, July 22, 2015.  Dozens of environmentally friendly mayors from around the world are meeting at the Vatican this week to bask in the star power of eco-Pope Francis and commit to reducing global warming and helping the urban poor deal with its effects. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) Photo: Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press
    California Gov. Jerry Brown, right, delivers his speech during a conference on Modern Slavery and Climate Change in the Casina Pio IV the Vatican, Wednesday, July 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

    Even the greenest, most eco-friendly politicians rarely utter the words Gov. Jerry Brown spoke at the Vatican’s climate change symposium last week.

    To prevent the worst effects of global warming, one-third of the world’s known oil reserves must remain in the ground, Brown told the gathering of government officials from around the world. The same goes for 50 percent of natural gas reserves and 90 percent of coal.

    “Now that is a revolution,” Brown said. “That is going to take a call to arms.”

    It’s an idea widely embraced among environmentalists and climate scientists. Burn all the world’s known fossil fuel supplies — the ones already discovered by energy companies — and the atmosphere would warm to truly catastrophic levels. Never mind hunting for more oil.

    But it’s a concept few politicians will touch. That’s because it raises a question no one wants to answer: Whose oil has to stay put?

    “They’ve all got their own oil,” said environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, who first popularized the issue with a widely read 2012 article in Rolling Stone. “Recognizing that you’ve got to leave your own oil — and not somebody else’s — in the ground is the next step.”

    Take California.

    No state has done more to fight global warming. By 2020, under state law, one-third of California’s electricity must come from the sun, the wind and other renewable sources. Brown wants 50 percent renewable power by 2030 and has called for slashing the state’s oil use in half by the same year.

    But he has shown no interest in cutting the state’s oil production. He has touted the economic potential of California’s vast Monterey Shale formation, whose oil reserves drillers are still trying to tap. And he has steadfastly refused calls from within his own party to ban fracking.

    “If we reduce our oil drilling in California by a few percent, which a ban on fracking would do, we’ll import more oil by train or by boat,” Brown told “Meet the Press.” “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

    California remains America’s third-largest oil producing state, behind Texas and North Dakota. The industry directly employs 184,100 Californians, helps support an estimated 271,840 other jobs and yields $21.2 billion in state and local taxes each year, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation.

    ‘Phasing out oil drilling’

    Any governor, no matter how environmentally minded, would have a hard time turning that down. Even if many environmentalists wish Brown would.

    “Just like we have a plan for increasing renewables, we need a plan for phasing out oil drilling in California,” said Dan Jacobson, state director for Environment California.

    It’s difficult for politicians to even talk about something as stark as putting limits on pumping oil, he said.

    “Solar and wind and electric cars are really hopeful things, whereas keeping oil in the ground sounds more like doomsday,” Jacobson said.

    And yet, Jacobson, McKibben and now apparently Brown are convinced that most fossil fuel reserves must never be used.

    The percentages Brown cited come from a study published this year in the scientific journal Nature. The researchers calculated that in order to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — above preindustrial levels, the world’s economy can pump no more than 1,100 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between 2011 and 2050. Burning the world’s known fossil fuel reserves would produce roughly three times that amount, they wrote.

    Most governments pursing climate-change policies have agreed to aim for a 2-degree Celsius warming limit, although many scientists consider that dangerously high. So far, global temperatures have warmed 0.8 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times.

    “The unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius,” the study concludes.

    Nonetheless, states, countries and companies with fossil fuel reserves all have an obvious and powerful incentive to keep drilling.

    The market value of oil companies, for example, is based in part on the size of their reserves and their ability to find more. Activist investors warning of a “carbon bubble” in their valuations have pushed the companies to assess how many of those reserves could become stranded assets if they can’t be burned. The companies have resisted.

    President Obama, meanwhile, has made fighting climate change a key focus of his presidency, raising fuel efficiency standards for cars, pumping public financing into renewable power and pushing for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

    Cut demand or cut supply

    But Obama has also boasted about America’s surging oil and natural gas production — and tried to claim credit for it. Last week, his administration gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to hunt for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Keeping oil in the ground does not quite square with his “all of the above” energy policy, observers note. At least, not American oil.

    “The same government that is working very hard to get a Clean Power Plan is allowing Shell to go exploring for hydrocarbons in the middle of nowhere, oil that may never be producible,” said climate activist and former hedge fund executive Tom Steyer, with audible exasperation.

    He notes that Obama, Brown and other politicians intent on fighting climate change have focused their efforts on cutting the demand for fossil fuels, rather than the supply. Most of the policies that climate activists want to see enacted nationwide — such as placing a price on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — would do the same, ratcheting down demand rather than placing hard limits on fossil fuel production.

    “The political thinking is the market itself will take care of figuring out which fossil fuels have to stay in the ground,” Steyer said.

    Some climate fights, however, have focused on supply. And again, the issue of whose fossil fuels have to stay put has played a part.

    Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline extension, for example, see blocking the project — which would run from Canada to America’s Gulf Coast — as a way to stop or at least slow development of Alberta’s enormous oil sands. James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, famously declared that fully developing the sands would be “game over for the climate.”

    Obama has delayed a decision on the pipeline for years. Given America’s own rising oil production, rejecting a project that could be a boon for the Canadian economy would be difficult, analysts say.

    “The message would be, ‘We’re not going to help you develop your resources — we’ll essentially raise the cost,’” said UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein. He is convinced that Canada will develop the tar sands, regardless.

    “It’s become such a huge symbol that it’s impossible for Obama to make a decision on it,” Borenstein said. “I think he’s just going to run out the clock.”

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      SF Chronicle editorial: A climate pilgrimage

      Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle
      [Editor:  The San Francisco Chronicle ran three (!) stories on the Vatican Conference on climate change, including two rather stiff challenges to California Governor Jerry Brown.  See below for one.  See also: As California pumps out oil, Gov. Brown says world must cut back … and SF Mayor touts green vehicles at Vatican conference.  – RS]

      Climate change road trip for Jerry Brown and Ed Lee

      Editorial, The San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 2015 5:16pm

      California is taking its climate change ambitions on a pilgrimage to Rome. The mission amplifies the major steps that have put this state out front in reshaping energy use and also taps into a sweeping papal message on reining in environmental damage.

      Leading the tour is Gov. Jerry Brown, joined by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee among some 60 global mayors. The Vatican gathering, which will also touch on human trafficking, intends to build on Pope Francis’ encyclical denouncing the toll from climate change and puts pressure on world leaders to take action at a U.N. summit in Paris in December.

      Former Jesuit seminarian Brown put himself in tune with Francis by talking up the “moral dimension” of human-caused problems such as erratic weather, rising seas and dirty air. But he also struck a more earthly note, lashing out at “troglodyte” skeptics who deny the science behind rising temperatures and shifting climates.

      California is already a leader in reducing tailpipe emissions, cutting fossil fuel use and increasing energy efficiency, going well beyond national standards. In the next 15 years, Brown wants to kick up the pace: Half of California’s electricity will come from renewables such as solar, wind or biofuels, and gas pump use will drop by half as well.

      He told his audience of clerics and politicians that such goals sound “unimaginable” but are needed. Brown lashed out at “fierce opposition and blind inertia” from doubtful lawmakers and dug-in business interests. Brown himself is no stranger to these pressures, giving his blessing to fracking for oil and gas, widely opposed by environmentalists. In his encyclical, Francis also criticized cap-and-trade regulations as too lax, though the carbon-tax mechanism is a bedrock feature of the governor’s energy plans.

      The gathering is also chance for other leaders to showcase policies. Lee unwrapped a plan to phase out petroleum in favor of renewable diesel fuels for the municipal fleet by the end of the year. It’s a another step in clearing the air of damaging greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

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