Southern California Gas has a secret weapon. His name is Alan Walker. He works at the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), and he anticipates and satisfies every SoCalGas need before the company even asks.
When SoCalGas’s chief operating officer shared an Aliso Canyon air pollution abatement order with Walker, he called it “absolutely crippling.” According to the Associated Press, he asked the executive if he would mind "me sharing this with folks up my chain...with a recommendation to have this quashed by the governor." Naturally, the executive replied, "I am fine with that idea. Thanks Al."
This is not an isolated incident but the reflection of a sea change in the culture of oil and gas regulation under Governor Jerry Brown. Brown has used the division himself as a lapdog to survey his own family ranch for oil and gas. DOGGR Supervisor Steve Bohlen ordered the survey without batting an eyelash, though it is illegal for public officials to take advantage of state resources for personal gain. Bohlen facilitated Brown's request, but his mistake was publicly confirming it. He quit last year.
The cultural shift towards industry began eight months after Brown assumed office in 2011. He had inherited two oil and gas regulators doing a bang up job protecting the environment from oil company pollution. But their refusal to rubberstamp permits so companies could inject their waste into federally-protected aquifers proved fatal to their careers.
When Derek Chernow, former chief deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, and Elena Miller, his head supervisor at DOGGR, tried to fix a long standing failure of oil companies to prevent pollution, they thought that was their job. They wanted oil companies to prove old wells could prevent the migration of waste into drinking water before injections.
"I understood that one of my job duties was to ensure and improve California's compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act," Chernow wrote in his declaration attached to an R. Rex Parris lawsuit brought against oil companies, the Governor and regulators. "This is a Federal law that requires protection of groundwater from underground injections of waste water from oil production processes. This water often called brine or produced water, is so dirty it cannot be used for hydraulic fracturing and must be disposed of in a manner that prevents it from migrating into fresh water." Likewise, he wrote that Miller had the same goal. The declaration is a must-read for anyone who was under the illusion that Brown put the environment above his own political ambitions, and the oil industry cash it takes to achieve them.
The Western States Petroleum Association insisted that permits should be issued outright. Chernow, and the US EPA, rejected that proposal. That's when Occidental Petroleum used former Governor Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff in his very first administration, to lobby for firing the regulators.
In October 2011, Chernow was meeting with his boss, Secretary John Laird, when Brown called. "Laird finished the call and, when he hung up, he told me the Governor just received a call from Gray Davis who served as counsel for Occidental," Chernow wrote. Occidental wanted Governor Brown to fire me and the State Oil & Gas Supervisor because of delays in permitting."
The same month, Brown staffers requested Occidental's waste water well documents. Chernow supplied them, writing in an email that he was "willing to follow any direction as required. If direction is different than what the Department is currently pursuing, I would appreciate as explicit direction as possible."
At Chernow's meeting on October 28 with Brown senior aide Cliff Rechtschaffen, "Rechtschaffen stated that DOGGR must immediately fast track permit approval." Such an "interim" measure amounted to a permanent exemption from a federal law only Congress could amend. Days later, in a phone meeting with Miller and Rechtschaffen, Miller told the aide that the proposal violated the Safe Water Drinking Act. "Rechtschaffen told us this was an order from Governor Brown and must be followed."
On November 3, the regulators were fired. Ultimately, California regulators authorized oil companies to inject production fluids and waste into federally-protected aquifers more than 2,000 times, according to an AP expose. Brown raked in $500,000 from Occidental for his Proposition 30 campaign, a tax increase initiative that sealed his legacy as a financial wizard.
Since 2011, Governor Brown has muzzled DOGGR and handed the leash to the oil and gas industry, resulting in blow outs like the Aliso Canyon methane leak that became the largest in US history. The agencies that regulate the industry are stacking their ranks with oilies like Alan Walker who began his DOGGR job last August. A supervising petroleum engineer, Walker put in 22 years at Questar Gas, a Utah utility, according to his Linked In profile. He doesn't know pollution from potatoes because at Questar he managed gas supplies, not air pollution.
Jerry Brown knows where his bread is buttered. He picked Big Oil over Better Environment, and that legacy is becoming clearer and clearer.