SAN FRANCISCO – State officials have defended Gov. Jerry Brown’s request to have regulators map and study his family’s ranch for oil, gas and mining potential — arguing that the work by the state was nothing the agency wouldn’t do for other members of the public.
But The Associated Press found no records that show anyone else received the same level of service on private land — and one state lawmaker was even told that state officials couldn’t help him map oil wells that were potentially endangering drinking water supplies in his Southern California district.
The state provided the AP late Thursday with dozens of pages of what they said were similar examples to what Brown received in June 2014 when he asked state regulators with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to research and map his family’s 2,700-acre ranch. The new records appear to show occasions when state oil regulators provided public entities and officials with existing maps, or passed along screen-saves from the state agency’s websites.
None of the new records showed anyone getting a custom map of private property, or assessment of their land’s oil and gas and mineral potential — both of which Brown got from state regulators last year.
The AP first reported last week on the oil and gas map and 51 pages of records, mapping and assessment that Brown commissioned from the state’s oil and gas agency. Brown’s request and state oil officials’ response first came to light in an ongoing lawsuit brought on behalf of southern California farmers who allege that Brown’s administration worked with the oil industry to get around laws meant to prevent oilfield contamination of groundwater and air.
Environmental and watchdog groups have condemned the state oil research done for Brown’s ranch, with the Center for Biological Diversity saying last week that Brown used the state agency as “his own private oil prospecting team.”
State law bars elected officials from using state resources for personal purposes. Brown’s spokesmen and state oil and gas officials said the work done for the Democratic governor was legal, because it was nothing that the agency wouldn’t do for any member of the public.
Five former officials with the state’s oil regulatory agency disagreed in interviews with the AP.
The former oil regulators, whose tenures at the division stretched from the 1980s to last year, told the AP that state oil regulators at times would print out up to 10 pages of records to answer a public request for information, even though the oil agency’s mandate is simply to regulate oilfields.
What made the work done for Brown unique, the regulators said, was the custom map with not only drilling information but colour-coded geological records and legends, and the conclusion by state regulators that Brown’s family land was unlikely to feature any gushers or mines in the future.
“It’s not part of the division’s charge,” said Anneliese Anderle, a senior oil and gas engineer who left last year after 20 years with the state oil and gas agency. “Bottom line was we wouldn’t be doing what was provided to the governor.”
Noting that Steve Bohlen, the oil agency’s director, was appointed by Brown nine days before the governor made his request for the state mapping, Anderle said, “Bohlen was new and he didn’t know how to say no.”
One of the state workers who helped prepare the map for Brown lodged a whistleblower complaint over being ordered to do the personal work for the governor and has faced retaliation from the state as a result, her attorney, William Rehwald, has said.
Teresa Schilling, a spokeswoman for the oil and gas regulators, this week called the AP’s stories “hair-splitting to a disingenuous degree.”
The additional records provided to the AP show about a dozen recent instances of state record searches for state lawmakers and other public and private individuals. Records included photocopies of existing maps and screen-shots of well searches on the state oil agency’s website.
One of the records was from February when aides to a California state lawmaker wrote the state’s oil and gas regulators, asking for the state agency to map out any oil wells that were potentially endangering drinking water supplies in his Southern California district.
The answer that Assemblyman Das Williams, a Democrat from Carpenteria, got back from the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources: “Sorry, no one in DOGGR is available to do that right now.”
He eventually received existing maps of different kinds of wells in the state and a screen-save picture from the agency’s website that showed an overview of wells in the area, the records show.
Ultimately, the assemblyman’s chief of staff, Lourdes Jimenez said: “What we were asking for were well locations, and we received the information we wanted.”
The records also show two instances of what appear to be custom maps created in response to a request, and both were for public purposes rather than private ones. One of those two maps shows an area of Southern California shoreline in which Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, an environmental group, was investigating possible oilfield pollution. The second was in response to an AP query earlier this year about Southern California oilfields and water aquifers.
The AP’s stories last week prompted a public campaign by the Consumer Watchdog non-profit group that urged Californians to “Ask for Your Free Jerry Brown Oil Map.”
California residents who’ve tried asking for that expressed disappointment at the state’s response, however.
“Our Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources does not evaluate property for its oil and gas potential, despite what you may have heard or read,” Don Drysdale, the oil and gas division’s spokesman, said in an email last week to a Sacramento resident, Sean Donovan.
Donovan, who had written the state asking it to check out oil prospects on his parents’ land, was disappointed. “The agency shouldn’t say that they are treating us all as they would Gov. Brown when that doesn’t seem true,” he said this week.
Schilling acknowledged Thursday the email to Donovan was “unhelpful and confusing.” She called it a result of the deluge of requests the state now is getting on oil research and said the state this week is providing more comprehensive responses.
Nina Widlund, who wrote the state asking for the oil prospects in her subdivision, shared polite emails from the state this week talking her through searches of the state oil website and offering to do the search for her but no custom map with each abandoned well site, ridge and geological age marked and colour-coded.
“I’d like to know why my taxpayer money is paying for (the work for Brown), and what I get is a very helpful email with links to figure it out myself,” said Widlund, of Chico. “I can’t believe they said, ‘Hey, Jerry, you can go pull those up on the web.'”