Want Oil-Field Data From The State? It Helps To Be Jerry Brown

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Ask California officials for a report on oil drilling prospects near your land, and you might not get quite the level of service Gov. Jerry Brown enjoyed when he made the same request last year.

Brown’s query, revealed by the Associated Press last week, has prompted more than 270 Californians to ask state officials for similar reports for their own properties. And the responses some of them have received so far don’t measure up to Brown’s.

Brown, who has staked much of his legacy on fighting climate change, last year asked the head of California’s oil regulating agency to study the history of oil and natural gas drilling near his family’s land in Colusa County. The agency gave him dozens of well records stretching back to the 1920s, a detailed map, and a one-page summary judging the area’s potential for oil or gas production to be “very low.”

Although one of the agency’s employees filed a whistleblower complaint, saying the staff was being forced to do personal work for Brown, state officials have insisted that the report wasn’t unusual. Any member of the public can request the same information and get the same response, they said.

So a number of Californians put that to the test.

They filed requests with the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which is part of the Department of Conservation. One of them received an e-mailed response — forwarded to The Chronicle — that included a link to the division’s Well Finder website for locating oil and gas wells and a screenshot of a sample map produced by the site. No summary, and no records beyond what ordinary Web users could look up on their own.

Another response reviewed by The Chronicle included the Well Finder link, a link to several specific well records and an offer to put together a map upon request. Again, no summary. Some of the records linked are relatively easy for lay people to understand. Others are not.

“It’s clear the agency went above and beyond in compiling all this information for the governor and analyzing it for him,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of the non-profit group Consumer Watchdog. “It’s also obvious that not everyone gets that treatment.”

Her group, a frequent critic of oil companies and state officials alike, set up an online form letter for people to use when requesting the information.

A division spokesman told The Chronicle Tuesday that anyone asking for a report similar to Brown’s would receive a summary of oil drilling activities in their area, a map and access to state records for nearby wells.

Conservation Department Teresa Schilling said Wednesday that everyone who asked for it would indeed get a summary helping them interpret the records — even if they hadn’t yet. And she said department staff will help people navigate the Well Finder site, which can look up public records associated with specific wells.

“We want people to use this,” Schilling said. “It’s a great resource, and we understand it’s not easy.”

The division, she said, has supplied similar reports to many people in the past but has never tried to field more than 200 requests at once. (The governor’s press office showed The Chronicle several reports, with a level of detail comparable to Brown’s, that were sent to members of the public earlier this year.)

“We are providing these to people,” Schilling said, adding that many of the people who filed requests in the last few days did so strictly as an experiment.

“A lot of people we’re contacting are saying, ‘Well, I didn’t really want anything, I just wanted to check if you were really going to respond,’” she said.

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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