By Dan Bacher, THE DAILY KOS
January 18, 2023
Los Angeles, CA—Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the state Oil & Gas Supervisor at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (CalGEM), has resigned from his job against the backdrop of a 754% uptick in new oil drilling permits issued in the fourth quarter of 2022.
Nearly half of the approvals (at least 100) allow producers to drill new wells within the state-mandated health and safety buffer zone of 3,200 feet near communities, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance said today in a press statement.
“Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk had come under increasing pressure in recent months from climate justice and advocacy groups with Last Chance Alliance and VISIÓN to stop issuing new permits in the setback zone,” the groups said.
“For years, the agency has also lagged on a crucial public health rulemaking process on the topic of protective buffer zones, ignored more than 80,000 public comments on the issue, and made key data on oil and gas hazards inaccessible to the public. Ntuk’s resignation was first reported by the Bakersfield Californian,” the groups stated.
“CalGEM had gone rogue in permitting oil and gas wells, continuing the practice even when the Governor signed a law last year creating a strong setback zone of 3,200 feet between California homes and oil and gas operations,” said Consumer Advocate Liza Tucker. “We hope Uduak’s departure is a sign that Governor Newsom will appoint a successor who will crack down on new well approvals that threaten vulnerable communities.”
In an email to the Long Beach Post, Ntuk said he resigned to “focus on the personal needs of my family as I move forward to the next phase of my career.”
“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,” said Ntuk. “It has been an honor to be a trailblazer in this capacity, and a privilege to serve our residents.”
Under Newsom, the legislature passed S.B. 1137, setting a protective zone of 3,200 feet between sensitive receptors like homes, schools and healthcare sites and oil and gas operations.
Now, the oil industry is on the verge of qualifying a referendum that could pause the law for two years, according to Tucker. But CalGEM’s supervisor has had discretion to reject new permits that endanger communities.
“Given the record profits posted by oil and gas companies in 2022, the multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry does not need to drill these new wells in neighborhoods,” said Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator at FracTracker Alliance. “They're already making record profits as it is. They don't need to continue sacrificing frontline communities to protect their bottom lines.”
For decades, frontline community advocates have called for change in the agency.
“Now is the time for Governor Newsom to appoint a leader who will enable CalGEM to do what Supervisor Ntuk could not: proceed with the years-delayed public health rulemaking process to make health and safety buffer zones permanent, make key information on hazards and their status available to the public, and actually do its job of regulating oil and gas,” said Kobi Naseck, Coalition Coordinator of Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods. “In California, that means taking action on behalf of low-income and non-white communities who live closest to toxic extraction sites. Whether or not the agency’s new leader will be another Big Oil-captured official or someone who is actually up to the task will signal if the Newsom Administration is really serious about this change.”
In the fourth quarter, oil and gas permit approvals for all types of wells, as well as for rework permits for existing wells, rose 127% over the same quarter last year. (See Table 1 below.)
“Out of 222 quarterly permits approved to drill new wells of all types, at least 100 of them were for wells within the setback zone of 3,200 feet,” according to FracTracker Alliance analysis of CalGEM data. “At the same time, permits to plug wells and remediate the environment fell nearly 10%.” The groups track and map new well approvals at the site www.NewsomWellWatch.com
Table 1. Counts of new drilling and rework permits in the fourth quarter of 2022 versus the fourth quarter of 2021
Courtesy of FracTracker Alliance based on CalGEM data
“The oil industry appeared to be in a rush to get as many permits approved as possible overall and within the setback zone as it scrambled to qualify a referendum to undo the health and safety buffer zone law,” said Tucker. “Under Oil & Gas Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk, CalGEM complied.”
“For the year, permits to rework existing wells using both conventional and risky methods of extraction were up by 73%,” said Tucker. “Meanwhile the number of drilling permits for all well types fell by only two permits—four-tenths of one percent—over the total number issued last year. At the same time, approvals for permits to plug wells and remediate the environment fell 20%.” (See Table 2 below.)
Table 2. Counts of new drilling and rework permits in 2022 versus 2021.
Courtesy of FracTracker Alliance based on CalGEM data
The groups said the trend of fewer permits issued to plug and abandon wells comes as no surprise following the recent discovery last spring of 41 leaking idle oil and gas wells in Bakersfield and the ensuing revelation of CalGEM’s lack of on-site inspections by regulators.
Janet Wilson, the Desert Sun investigative journalist who broke the story on the leaking wells, also reported that CalGEM instructed inspectors to conduct crucial well inspections remotely in a bid by management to drive up the reporting of inspection numbers. Using a practice deemed “remote witnessing,” oil well reviews were done from the office rather than in-person in oil fields at great cost to the communities who live nearby.
Rather than invest the money needed to protect public health and plug existing wells, the oil industry keeps idle wells running and pays the state low fees for doing so. CalGEM has yet to set a hard deadline on how long wells can remain idle before they must be plugged, according to the groups.
Out of about 107,000 active and idle oil wells in the state, more than 70,000 are idle or economically marginal, barely yielding any oil, according to the California Council on Science & Technology. And as industry bankruptcy trends continue, many of these idle wells could become orphan wells in coming years, leaving taxpayers with a billion-dollar tab to plug wells and clean up the mess.
“Governor Newsom’s administration and CalGEM need to prioritize stopping new drilling and pressuring operators to plug existing wells,” said Ferrar. “We urge Governor Newsom to work with grassroots groups and frontline communities to select a new CalGEM Director who can accomplish these priorities.”
“Ntuk’s dismissal is a consequence of his actions,” said Cesar Aguirre with Central California Environmental Justice Network. “He failed to live up to CalGEM’s new mission following the DOGGR scandal – protecting public health, which is evidenced in his recent approval of permits within the S.B. 1137 protective health zone.”
“That’s his legacy, it’s what he chose to leave behind. Uduak-Joe was not aligned with the agency’s new mission, and this should have happened long ago. We’ll be watching the Newsom administration closely to see if the administration will make the appropriate changes to get CalGEM right on track,” Aguirre added.
“If the state wants to get serious about regulating a polluting industry that is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths—not to mention the increasing cost of the climate emergency in California—they can’t just replace one bad actor with another,” said Dan Ress, staff attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.
“DOGGR may have changed its name to CalGEM, but for years under Uduak-Joe Ntuk’s leadership, the agency has remained ineffective and absent in its duty to regulate a toxic industry and protecting public health. Governor Newsom has the power to choose new leadership that will prioritize public health, end neighborhood drilling, and commit to environmental justice. We’ll be watching,” Ress concluded.
After oil corporations pumped $20 million into the effort, the California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) announced on Dec. 12 that it has collected enough signatures to qualify a petition to undo Senate Bill (SB) 1137, a bill banning new oil drilling within 3,200 feet of sensitive sites like homes, schools, hospitals and other facilities.
For more, see:
Background: Big Oil Pumps Millions Into Influencing California Politicians and Regulators
The $20 million spent by the oil industry to gather the signatures for the referendum to reverse AB 1137 is just part of the millions of dollars the industry spent as it was making enormous profits after California prices soared to record highs.
Flush with billions of dollars in record profits, the oil and gas companies in California have been spending big money lately in an attempt to influence the California Legislature and voters and continue the systemic regulatory capture that has fouled California government for decades.
The oil and gas industry has spent an astounding $30 million to date in the 2021-22 Legislative Session against SB 1137, legislation to mandate buffer zones around oil and gas wells, and other bills they were opposed to. We won't know the final lobbying numbers until around January 31, 2022.
Big Oil and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) spent $4,573,758 in lobbying expenses from September 1 to October 31, 2022. That brings the total of oil and gas corporation lobbying expenses to $30,029,638 in the last seven quarters of the 2021-22 Legislative Session: cal-access.sos.ca.gov/…
The Western States Petroleum Association, the largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Sacramento, spent $2,164,967 of that $4,573,758 in lobbying expenses in the seventh quarter of the legislative session. That brings the total of the lobbying expenses by WSPA alone to $8,910,825 in the 2021-22 session.
While a long and hard-fought campaign by environmental justice groups, with the help of Governor Gavin Newsom, was able to finally get SB 1137 approved by the Legislature, other important bills were stopped by oil industry-backed legislators. Those measures include a bill to ban offshore drilling off the California coast and another bill to divest State of California pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry.
The oil and gas industry also spent millions of dollars for legislative candidates it favored in the November 2022 election. The biggest sources of outside spending in legislative races in the November 2022 election cycle were oil and gas companies and electric utilities, according to Ben Christopher and Sameea Kamal of Cal Matters.
“Those organizations have spent more than $7.6 million, roughly one-fifth of the total. Most of that spending happened before Newsom announced a December special legislative session on his oil tax plan.”
Big Oil has been able to get away with what it does in California for decades because of the enormous influence the Western States Petroleum Association, the trade group for the oil industry, and oil and gas companies, has exerted over the California Legislature, regulatory agencies and media.
Over the past four years, fossil fuel companies paid almost $77.5 million to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento, reported Josh Slowiczek in Capital and Main on May 14.
“Oil and gas interests spent four times as much as environmental advocacy groups and almost six times as much as clean energy firms on lobbying efforts in California between 2018 and 2021, according to a Capital & Main analysis — reflecting the intensity of the industry’s efforts to influence policy in a state whose leaders have vowed to build an energy future free of fossil fuels,” Slowiczek wrote.
WSPA and Big Oil wield their power in 8 major ways: through (1) lobbying; (2) campaign spending; (3) serving on and putting shills on regulatory panels; (4) creating Astroturf groups; (5) working in collaboration with media; (6) creating alliances with labor unions; (7) contributing to non profit organizations; and (8) sponsoring awards ceremonies, including those for legislators and journalists.