Politics & Government

‘I am very angry’ – Newsom blasts fracking regulator he fired over conflict of interest claims

A day after firing the state’s top oil and gas regulator, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’s looking into ways to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Newsom’s office told Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot to fire Ken Harris, the leader of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, Thursday and directed Crowfoot to investigate alleged conflicts of interest among other top officials.

Newsom’s decision follows allegations by two advocacy groups, Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker, that eight regulatory officials who reported to Harris owned stock in oil companies they oversee.

The groups say a deputy director at the division owned up to $100,000 in stock at Exxon Mobil. That regulator, David Gutierrez, told The Desert Sun newspaper that he had sold his stock in the company and was trying to follow the rules.

Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker also pointed to what they characterize as a “major increase” in fracking permits during the Newsom’s first months in office. Regulators have approved 191 fracking permits this year, about twice as many as were approved in a similar timeframe last year, according to the groups.

Newsom told reporters Friday he wasn’t previously aware of the uptick in permits for fracking, the hydraulic fracturing technique for extracting oil and gas from rock that environmentalists decry as harmful.

He said he hasn’t yet been in office a full year and is still assembling a team of officials who agree with him on policy areas like fracking. Harris, who was appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, doesn’t share his views on the subject, Newsom said.

“I am very angry about the fact that they signed off on this many permits,” he said, speculating that there was an increase in permit requests because companies anticipated he would soon try to curtail the practice. “They knew exactly what was coming.”

Newsom said he looked into putting a moratorium on fracking in the state when he was first elected governor, but he’s since learned he can’t do it through executive action. He said he’s looking into other options, both through executive power and through the Legislature, to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels.

He pointed to funding he approved in the state budget to study how California can transition away from fossil fuels, but said it can’t happen overnight without Californians losing jobs, seeing gas prices rise and increasing the state’s reliance on imported oil.

“I know some people want to just turn things off and not deal with the consequences,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

The California Department of Conservation, which oversees the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the governor’s comments and his direction to fire Harris.

Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove called Newsom’s decision “rushed” and criticized him for dismissing Harris “without completing a full and fair investigation first.”

“This is a serious injustice,” the Bakersfield Republican said in a statement. “If it is indicative of how the governor chooses to work with the oil industry, the future of California’s economy is in a very dangerous position.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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