January 22, 2023

After word spread last week that the state oil and gas supervisor had stepped down, once the Newsom administration thanked him for his service and the industry lamented the influence of politics on the position, environmental justice activists stepped up to take a little credit.

A news release environmental justice coalition members issued Wednesday, the day after The Californian broke news of Uduak-Joe Ntuk's resignation the Friday before, said they had been meeting with administration officials since fall expressing concern about a big jump in permits approved for drilling and well reworks within 3,200 feet of homes and other sensitive sites.

Such work was to be halted within buffer zones of that size under legislation Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Sept. 16. But it didn't take effect until this month, and in the meantime, the coalition urged state officials to slow down permitting within the buffer zone or exercise discretional authority to halt approvals altogether, as the administration has done with fracking applications.

Ntuk's agency had "gone rogue" in permitting new wells, Consumer Watchdog advocate Liza Tucker said in Wednesday's release. The coalition hoped his exit from atop the California Geologic Energy Management Division "is a sign Newsom will appoint a successor who will crack down on new well approvals that threaten vulnerable communities," she added.

The activists' pressure may or may not have contributed to Ntuk's exit. But besides documenting an industry rush to get permits soon after Newsom signed the law, their campaign illustrated the close watch EJ groups keep on state oil regulation and their readiness to engage closely with the administration at different levels.

The groups were monitoring permits as they went out, rather than waiting for quarterly summaries. When an increase in permitting within the 3,200-foot zones became apparent in late October, the coalition set meetings with CalGEM officials as well as people higher up within the administration.

"When we notice that happening, we speak up," Kobi Naseck, coalition coordinator of Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, said by email.

For his part, Ntuk says he quit to focus on family and the next phase of his career. Informed Friday of the coalition's complaints to the administration, he asked who activists met with and what data they shared with his bosses.

It wouldn't be the first or the second time pressure exerted by outside groups presaged a decision to fire the state oil and gas supervisor, who as head of the California Geologic Energy Management Division oversees the state's Kern-centric oil industry. Indeed, the position has long sat on a precarious perch against the state's political winds.

Newsom fired Ntuk's predecessor in 2019 after environmental groups complained about a surge in fracking permits and scandal within the ranks. Eight years earlier, former Gov. Jerry Brown removed California's oil and gas supervisor under pressure by industry representatives and senior Kern elected officials decrying a slowdown in oilfield permitting.

A state Department of Conservation spokesman dodged questions last week about the activists' campaign and what influence it may have had on Ntuk's departure. But he did address the permitting rush, in which approvals for new drilling within the proposed buffer zones in Kern jumped from zero since June to more than 40 in October alone, according to state data analyzed by environmental nonprofit FracTracker Alliance.

"Many factors influence the pace of oil and gas permitting," spokesman Jacob Roper said in an email. He wrote that a significant factor last fall was the reinstatement of Kern County's permitting authority as lead agency for in-county oil and gas permitting under the California Environmental Quality Act.

But the county did not regain its permitting authority, following a favorable court decision, until early November. After that, FracTracker data shows a drop to less than five new-drilling approvals, through the end of 2022, within the 2,500-foot zones around Kern.

The records indicate permits for well reworks in the county continued at a moderate rate after spiking to more than 60 in October, which was about 50 percent more than September and more than double November's total.

CEO Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association said by email anti-oil activists want the state to improperly set aside complete and legally sound permit applications, "but that's not how a democracy functions."

The trade group expects to see the buffer zone law, Senate Bill 1137, placed on hold next month, assuming certification of a contentious referendum it supported to put the measure before voters in November 2024. Zierman asserts SB 1137 should not have taken effect because of case law from a similar referendum that, even before being certified, forced the state to shelve new rules pending statewide balloting.

Wednesday's news release said Ntuk had discretion to reject permits that endanger communities.

Even short of that, Naseck said CalGEM "absolutely has authority to ask for more information from operators and influence how quickly permits to drill in communities are granted — and the agency and its supervisor did not use that authority" despite SB 1137's passage.