California’s Chief Oil and Gas Regulator Resigns

Thursday, December 03, 2015
Steve Bohlen

California’s chief oil and gas regulator, Steve Bohlen, whose resignation was announced this week after 14 months in the job, will be missed by the industry’s chief lobbyist.

“Oil and gas production in California is today conducted under some of the most stringent regulations and oversight in the world” as a result of recent changes at the beleaguered state’s Division of Gas, Oil and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Those changes were pressed upon the division after years of complaints about the overly cozy relationship between regulators and the industry became a lot more heated earlier this year when it became known that oil companies were allowed to inject wastewater from drilling into aquifers protected by the federal government for years—sometimes with permits, sometimes without.

Those revelations highlighted the slow process, only recently begun, of getting an accurate picture of oil and gas drilling operations in the state. Much of today’s drilling in the nation’s third-largest oil producer, utilizes new technology, like fracking and acidization, that pose additional hazards to people and the environment.

DOGGR appeared in the public spotlight in 2011 when Governor Brown fired its boss, Elena Miller, and her boss, Derek Chernow, acting director of the California Department of Conservation. They had attempted to enforce environmental requirements for injection wells in the wake of a gruesome fatal accident that dropped a Chevron worker into a boiling cauldron of water and hydrogen sulfide.

That slowed the drilling permit process way down and infuriated the industry.

Brown replaced Chernow with Mark Nechodom, the husband of California’s then-Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and DOGGR veteran Tim Kuskic took over for Miller. The division returned to cranking out permits at an accelerated rate. The state passed legislation in 2013 to regulate fracking and other well-stimulation techniques, while trying to get a handle on what toxic chemicals were being pumped into the ground and where.

Kustic left in February 2014 and was replaced by Bohlen. Nechodom stepped down in June of this year. Bohlen had not worked in the oil and gas industry or government. He has held positions in academia (Texas A&M University) and research (U.S. Geological Survey). He was program director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory when Brown tapped him, and he will be returning there.

Bohlen was appointed in April 2014 and in June received a request from the governor to check out whether his family’s ranch in Colusa County had any potential for oil and gas. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the information was put together by public employees and hand-delivered by Bohlen. Brown had chastised Bohlen at one point for discussing the matter in e-mails that were susceptible to Public Records Act requests.

Jennie Catalano, a mapping specialist with the state Department of Conservation, filed a whistleblower lawsuit, claiming she did the work under protest and was retaliated against for voicing her complaint.

Bohlen said he had been talking to Brown about resigning since April. Reheis-Boyd said Bohlen provided an “invaluable service” for undertaking a “massive review of the division’s regulations,” and Bohlen told the Chronicle the agency had “turned a corner” and the “future looks very bright.”

Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, did not agree with either of them. He said in a statement that DOGGR was still “far too close to the industry it is supposed to regulate. . . . The next supervisor must address Californians’ concerns about water contamination and safety risks from drilling and fracking.”

That would be Ken Harris, executive officer for the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board since 2012. Brown announced his appointment on Monday.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Oil and Gas Division Chief Stepping Down (by David Siders, Sacramento Bee)

Leader of State’s Embattled Oil Agency Resigns (by Victoria Colliver, San Francisco Chronicle)

California's Top Oil Regulator Quits After Controversies (by Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press)

California Oil, Gas Chief Resigns amid Growing Concerns About Regulation (by Richard Nemec, Natural Gas Intelligence)

Under Scrutiny from All Sides, Brown Taps Ph.D. in Geology to Lead the DOGGR: What This Means for the Industry and SB 4’s Rollout (by Mike Mills, Stoel Rives LLP)

Whistleblower Complaint Filed over Governor’s Request for Info on Family Ranch (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Oil Regulator's Report Oozes with Bad News for L.A. and the State (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Steve Bohlen (California Department of Conservation)

Statement on Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources Supervisor Steven Bohlen (Office of the California Governor)

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