California’s Fossil Fuel Friendships – Part 2. Meet the Captured Agency in Charge of Oil and Gas Regulation
by Amy Moas
May 13, 2021
CalGEM, with a history of fossil fuel favors, has millions of Californians still waiting for public health protections
In this second installment of a series profiling some of the many ways that the fossil fuel industry exerts pressure across California’s government, we look at how the fossil fuel friendships inside one regulatory agency have corrupted its mission to protect public health and our environment.
The California Geological Energy Management Division (CalGEM) of the California Department of Conservation is a fairly obscure government agency for most Californians, and its Supervisor Uduak-Joe Ntuk is generally not a household name. But both the agency and its supervisor’s decisions impact the health of millions of Californians and the environment. CalGEM has responsibility for the oversight of the oil and gas industry; however, it has a long legacy of cozy ties to fossil fuel interests — including years of controversies of weak enforcement and close relationships with the oil and gas industry, including key staff holding personal investments in the very companies they were charged with regulating. This history and reputation sparked substantial changes in 2019, including a name change, a new mission focused on public health safety and environmental quality, a new leader, and a new ethics policy.
Unfortunately, indications continue to paint CalGEM as a captured agency prioritizing polluters over people. This was especially evident in 2020. The California Independent Petroleum Association, who represents roughly 500 petroleum companies in the state, submitted letters to the Newsom administration and state regulators filled with a wishlist of COVID-19 relief, budgetary, and regulatory changes. It did not take long for CalGEM to grant extensions to deadlines for producers to pay fees and submit plans to manage unused wells, or for Newsom to withdraw his initial proposal for 128 new agency positions aimed at improving regulatory enforcement and technical oversight — and instead saved the industry a $24 million price tag. And despite CalGEM’s authority to impose fines and the $191,669 in civil penalties issued, the agency collected $0 in fines in 2020. CalGEM levied a $2.7 million fine on Chevron after a massive oil spill in 2019 — but to date, not a single cent has been collected.
These concessions to the oil and gas industry came under the leadership of former Chevron employee turned supervisor, Uduak-Joe Ntuk. Less than a year after assuming the position, and just two months after he granted delays in fees and abandoned new regulatory positions, the California Independent Petroleum Association gave $7,000 to an independent expenditure committee supporting Ntuk’s wife, Tunua Thrash-Ntuk, in her campaign for a local Long Beach City Council seat. The association, based in Sacramento, interestingly had never donated to any other Long Beach council candidates in as far back as online records go. While Supervisor Ntuk flatly rejected speculation of quid pro quos, a Sacramento oil PAC showing such interest in a local city council race raises the question of whether Ntuk’s position as the state oil and gas supervisor, and the desire to establish a channel of favors, was a factor.
Supervisor Ntuk’s cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry unfortunately is nothing new for the state agency which has been embroiled in controversy for years. An investigation found that between 2018 and 2020, the agency issued 66 regulation enforcement orders — yet only 11 have been complied with. As a result leaking wells, tanks, and other unaddressed problems threaten both public health and wildlife throughout California. In parallel, another investigation and audit found that agency employees were allowing oil and gas companies to avoid upfront reviews and rubber stamp more oil and gas projects by using so-called “dummy” folders to approve risky new injection wells. These specific violations took under Jason Marshall, former Deputy Director of the California Department of Conservation, who oversaw the agency. He was fired in July 2019 and now works for the Berry Corporation, an oil and gas company based in Bakersfield.
Nearly Decade Long Fight for Setbacks
As CalGEM continues to prioritize polluters over people, millions of Californians are suffering.
Many years of scientific studies, analysis, and community experiences have found that communities living near fossil fuel extraction are exposed to harmful pollution, putting them at a greater risk of asthma, preterm births, respiratory disease, cancer, and even dying from COVID-19. These impacts don’t affect all communities equally — frontline communities living near oil and gas extraction are predominately Black, Latinx, Indigenous and working class. Independent recommendations, including the legislative required California Council on Science and Technology report in 2015, have made it clear that a buffer zone of 2,500 feet between sensitive sites (including homes, schools, and hospitals) and oil and gas wells is long overdue and absolutely necessary for public health and environmental justice.
These recommendations have sat ignored for years. It was not until November 2019 that Governor Newsom issued a directive for CalGEM to begin a process to update public health and safety protections for communities near oil and gas production. Public hearings then took place in February 2020, followed by a public comment period, which produced more than 40,000 public comments overwhelmingly in support of a 2,500-foot buffer zone between oil and gas operations and sensitive areas. Since then, however, there has been little else but formal delays and silence yet again.
But you can help!
While CalGEM continues to drag their feet, Governor Newsom has recently shown a willingness to take action to curb harmful fossil fuel extraction, but has so far neglected a crucial piece: public health protections for communities near drilling. If enough of us speak out, we can buoy Governor Newsom to step in and curb this environmental racism. Tell Governor Newsom that frontline communities can’t afford more delays and ask him to take immediate action by halting all new fossil fuel permits within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, and other sensitive areas.