Fired Oil Regulator Says Governor Ordered that He Ignore U.S. Water Law

Tuesday, September 08, 2015
Derek Chernow

Back in July, Judith Lewis Mernit at Capital & Main described from the outside how “the petroleum lobby can capture a governor who publicly fancies himself a climate defender, get him to flaunt state and federal environmental laws, and remake a crucial regulatory agency at the industry’s urging.”

She was writing about Governor Jerry Brown firing the two top officials at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources in the Department of Conservation in 2011. Ellen Knickmeyer at Associated Press recounted an inside story told in an August 21 court declaration in a case by Derek Chernow, the acting DOGGR director fired by Brown.

Chernow and the Brown administration were being pressured by the oil industry to issue drilling permits for steam injection wells in Kern County without the proper documents that proved they weren’t endangering protected aquifers with toxic chemicals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been acting a little pissy since June when a sinkhole swallowed a Chevron worker near a well site.

The agency blasted off a letter (pdf) to DOGGR the next month to stop endangering aquifers.    

A month before he was canned, Chernow said, his boss, Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, told him Brown said that former Governor Gray Davis, then legal counsel for Occidental Petroleum, wanted the DOGGR director fired. Davis was Brown’s chief of staff during his first go-round as governor.

A couple weeks later, Brown energy adviser Cliff Rechtschaffen was said to have told Chernow and Elena Miller, the state’s oil and gas supervisor, that Brown wanted the permits fast-tracked. When Miller said that would violate the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Rechtschaffen allegedly responded, “This was an order from Governor Brown, and must be obeyed.”  

They were fired the next day.

Brown replaced Chernow with Mark Nechodom, the husband of California’s then-Secretary of State Debra Bowen, and the division cranked out permits at an accelerated rate that had Brown crowing in public about streamlining the bureaucracy. The Western States Petroleum Association, which had spearheaded a campaign to speed up the permits, was ecstatic.

Chernow, now chief of staff for the state Legislature, held the same position before Brown tapped him the temporarily run DOGGR in 2010.

The EPA ordered the state to finally begin surveying its 50,000 injection wells, which get rid of the liquid detritus from oil drilling. Drilling produces eight times more waste water than extracted oil. The state quickly closed 23 of the most egregious wells and regulators admitted they handed out at least 500 permits they shouldn’t have. But they were loath to close more than 2,000 found to have improper or nonexistent permits.

An Associated Press review of state records calculated that 40% of those permits were granted during Brown’s first four years.

 –Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Ex-California Official Says Governor Ordered Regulators to Bypass US Water Law (by Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press)

The Persuaders: Western States Petroleum Association (by Judith Lewis Mernit, Capital & Main)

State Moves Slowly on Oil Extraction Rules Favored by the Feds (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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