By Ari Plachta and Stephen Hobbs, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

January 20, 2023

California’s official responsible for overseeing the oil and gas industry unexpectedly resigned last week, prompting speculation from environmental advocates that Uduak-Joe Ntuk faced pressure to step down after overseeing a recent spike in new drilling permits.

His departure comes at a turbulent moment for the state’s oil and gas industry, which Gov. Gavin Newsom aims to punish for allegedly reaping excess profits. Ntuk said in an emailed statement he resigned to focus on his family.

“I am grateful to Governor Newsom for the opportunity to serve as the first African American State Oil & Gas Supervisor in the history of California,” Ntuk’s email said. “It has been an honor to be a trailblazer in this capacity, and a privilege to serve our residents.”

According to his biography on the Department of Conservation website that has since been removed, Ntuk served as the Director of Petroleum Administration for Los Angeles and worked as an engineer at Chevron Corp. for several years. His departure was first reported by The Bakersfield Californian.

Danella Debel, a spokesperson for the governor, thanked Ntuk for his work and wished him well in future endeavors. She did not respond to questions about a possible link to the surge in approvals for new oil drilling permits and his decision to step down.

After a long term decline, the last three months of 2022 saw a rapid uptick in new oil drilling permits issued by the Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, overseen by Ntuk.

The rush of new permits came ahead of a new law requiring 3,200-foot buffer zones between new oil and gas wells and homes, hospitals and schools. It went into effect on January 1.

A report from Fractracker Alliance found that nearly half of the 222 new drilling permits at the end of the year were for wells located within the public health setback zone required by SB 1137. In response to the law, oil companies gathered signatures from across the state to place a referendum on a future statewide ballot to overturn it. Election officials are evaluating petitions to determine if it will qualify.

Observers noted the disconnect between Ntuk’s approval of so many permits ahead of 2023 and the Newsom administration’s priorities. “We definitely had an issue with the way permits were being distributed,” said Cesar Aguirre, the Kern County Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network.

Liza Tucker, an advocate with Consumer Watchdog, said Ntuk had discretion to block new drilling permits as the new law took effect and neglected to use it. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

“It clearly must have presented a dilemma, and I can imagine the administration would have been surprised by that and it may have led to pressure on him.”

Ntuk said in an email that permitting played no role in his decision to resign. Until the governor appoints Ntuk’s replacement, Department of Conservation Chief Deputy Director Gabe Tiffany will serve as acting state oil and gas supervisor for CalGEM.

The increase in permits came as the oil industry faces intense scrutiny. Newsom called for a special session to institute a penalty on companies when their profits exceed a threshold. Whoever takes over the agency permanently will be closely watched by both fossil companies and environmental advocates in a battle over the industry’s future.

“This agency should be guided by science-based reasoning, be committed to the law, not environmental ideology or undermining the trust of Californians by politicizing the permitting process,” said Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association.

Dan Ress, staff attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, said in an emailed statement CalGEM was “ineffective and absent” in regulating the oil and gas industry and protecting public health under Ntuk’s leadership. Newsom, Ress added, has “the power to choose new leadership that will prioritize public health, end neighborhood drilling, and commit to environmental justice.”