Gov. Jerry Brown last year directed state oil and gas regulators to research, map and report back on any mining and oil drilling potential and history at the Brown family’s private land in Northern California.
After a phone call from the governor and follow-up requests from his aides, senior staffers in the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency over at least two days produced a 51-page historical report and geological assessment, plus a personalized satellite-imaged geological and oil and gas drilling map for the area around Brown’s family ranchland near the town of Williams.
Ultimately, the regulators told the governor, prospects were “very low” for any commercial drilling or mining at the 2,700-acre property, which has been in Brown’s family for more than a century.
Through the state’s open records law, The Associated Press obtained the research that state regulators carried out for Brown, and the emails among senior oil and gas regulators scrambling to fulfill the governor’s request.
Brown spokesman Evan Westrup declined to discuss the work for the governor, referring the AP to California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. That agency said the work was a legal and proper use of public resources — and no more than the general public would get. But oil industry experts said they could not recall a similar example of anyone getting that kind of state work done for private property.
Brown’s request to state regulators amounted to the governor using state workers as “his own private oil prospecting team,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The work on the Brown family ranch “is especially outrageous given his administration’s failure to prevent oil companies from polluting California’s underground water,” Kretzmann said, referring to the oil agency’s acknowledgments to federal environmental regulators that it regularly fell short in enforcing federal law on oilfield pollution.
Brown’s request to oil regulators points to the complex way that the governor, an internationally known advocate of renewable energy, approaches oil and gas issues in his own state. While spearheading ambitious programs to curb the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, Brown also has sought to spur oil production in California, the country’s No. 3 oil-producing state.
Nine days after Brown appointed Steve Bohlen to lead the state oil and gas regulatory division, the governor called him with his research request.
Brown wanted to find out about the “geology, past oil and gas activity, potential for future oil and gas activity in the vicinity of his long-time family ranch,” Bohlen related in an email to senior agency staffers that same day, June 11, 2014. Bohlen set noon the next day as a target for getting the research done for delivery to Brown.
After Brown’s initial call, his aides called back within hours to ask regulators to look at what minerals might lie under the Brown ranch and also emailed to make sure the regulators were doing a map for the governor.
In an email to the AP, an attorney for the oil and gas agency, Graham St. Michel, said Brown had been compiling documents that “shed light on the fauna, flora, rock formations and geology of the area where his great-grandparents … first homesteaded in the 1870s.”
California law bars elected officials from using public employees or other public resources for personal purposes, with limited exceptions for things like occasional personal calls from work phones.
Regulators say the personal work they did for Brown was legal and appropriate.
“We field similar requests for public, historical information … and responding is one of the division’s public service responsibilities,” said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the oil and gas agency.
Drysdale said the satellite-imaged geological and drilling map prepared by the state for Brown’s land took a “few hours.”
Regulators and Brown’s office declined to provide examples of any similar geological assessments and maps that oil gas regulators had done for anyone else who was curious about any oil and gas potential of their private land. The AP has filed a public records request for them.
Petroleum-industry professionals contacted by the AP said they never heard of regulators carrying out and compiling that kind of research, analysis and mapping for private individuals. The AP told the oil-industry professionals only that state regulators did the work for a state official.
Assessing a private property’s oil and gas and mineral potential is not something that state regulators typically do, one oil industry executive said. “There’s no evaluation. That’s not a service they provide at all,” said Rick Peace, president of a Bakersfield, California, company that helps manage oil exploration and production.
Roland Bain, a petroleum geologist based in Northern California, said he was struck by the report’s “beautiful map.” It was labeled “Oil and Gas Potential In West Colusa County,” and the PDF said “JB_Ranch.”
“Anyone calling in for help is not going to get that,” Bain said. “The division of oil and gas has never been in a position to give you detailed geological mapping.”
Historical oilfield records that made up much of the documents are available to the public, and ordinary people can get them by searching on the agency’s website, or by visiting one of the agency’s offices, which charge for photocopies, Peace noted.
But, as for regulators preparing and compiling assessments, reports and maps for someone’s private purposes, “I’ve never heard of that,” said Jean Pledger, a Bakersfield oil and gas attorney.
Typically, landowners find out their land has unrealized oil and gas potential only if oil industry agents scout out the property and approach the owners, said Sacramento-based oil and gas attorney James Day.
Alternatively, individuals can hire an independent petroleum geologist at $200 to $400 an hour, Day said.
Drysdale of the oil and gas division said state law allows state officials to access public records on the same basis as any member of the public.
Jessica Levinson, a governance expert and professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that if state regulators had done that kind of work before for private landowners, they should be able to provide examples.
Of Brown’s request, Levinson said, “if no other private individual is able to avail himself of this opportunity, and it’s clearly just for personal gain instead of public benefit, then it’s clearly problematic.”
Brown told the Sacramento Bee in 2013 that he and his family owned a controlling interest in the acreage near Williams and that he planned to put a house on the property. The state research done on the ranch was first disclosed in a lawsuit by attorney Patricia Oliver on behalf of a group of Kern County farmers who allege the Brown administration worked with the oil industry to circumvent laws meant to protect groundwater from contamination.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has faulted state oil and gas regulators for failing to enforce federal laws meant to prevent oilfield pollution of the state’s reserves of water for drinking and irrigation. Last month, Bohlen blamed his “dramatically understaffed” labor force for the state’s failures to enforce those federal codes.