Are regulators at the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources free to make decisions in the public interest? Despite major complaints by farmers and environmentalists in Kern County, state regulators have waived environmental review for dozens of controversial new gas and oil drilling operations.
The drilling permit issue has highlighted Gov. Jerry Brown's open hostility to the California Environmental Quality Act. "I have never seen a CEQA exemption I didn't like," the governor said in July. That came after Brown fired two officials of the Department of Conservation who had been slow to grant waivers. Their replacements have since handed out more than two dozen drilling permits with scarcely any environmental review, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
The Times found that oil and gas firms gave more than $1.1 million to the governor's tax initiative campaign after personnel changes at the agency.
Farmers and oil companies have worked happily side by side in Kern County for decades. But farmers are concerned about a controversial drilling technique, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process requires pumping huge quantities of water, sand and chemicals under very high pressure down well bores. The drilling operation creates or expands fissures in underground geologic formations, allowing release of oil and gas, which has led to a new energy boom.
Critics say fracking may be depleting and contaminating underground water supplies and that it may even trigger earthquakes. One farmer whose concerns were detailed by the Times has sued. He wants the state to perform an environmental review before permitting an energy company to drill an exploratory well on his property.
Given that natural gas is a better alternative than coal in generating electricity, there's a reasonable argument to be made that a ban or moratorium on fracking wouldn't be in the best interest of the state's overall energy interests.
Nonetheless, state regulators can no longer ignore the potential dangers. New rules must be robust. Regulators must demonstrate they are working to safeguard the public, not to make life easier for energy companies with political clout.