State con­ser­va­tion head re­signs

His de­par­ture comes amid height­ened scru­tiny of the agency that reg­u­lates oil and gas com­pa­nies.

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Julie Cart julie.cart@la­times.com

Mark Ne­chodom, the direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion, which over­sees the em­bat­tled agency that reg­u­lates the state’s oil and gas in­dus­try, re­signed Thurs­day.

Gov. Jerry Brown ap­pointed Ne­chodom to the post three years ago. He took over an agency that has gen­er­ated sig­nif­i­cant con­tro­versy.

Cal­i­for­nia’s oil reg­u­la­tor, the Di­vi­sion of Oil, Gas and Geo­ther­mal Re­sources, has been fac­ing scru­tiny from the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency af­ter al­low­ing oil pro­duc­ers to drill thou­sands of oil­field waste- wa­ter dis­posal wells into fed­er­ally pro­tected aquifers.

Ne­chodom was named this week in a fed­eral law­suit filed on be­half of a group of Kern County farm­ers who al­lege that Brown, the oil and gas di­vi­sion and oth­ers con­spired with oil com­pa­nies to al­low the il­le­gal in­jec­tions and to cre­ate a more lax reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment for en­ergy firms.

The law­suit was filed un­der fed­eral rack­e­teer­ing statutes and claims the con­spir­acy de­prived Kern County farm­ers of ac­cess to clean wa­ter.

Ne­chodom, who could not be reached for com­ment, sent a brief let­ter Thurs­day to Re­sources Sec­re­tary John Laird. The one-para­graph let­ter did not give a rea­son for his de­par­ture.

Laird an­nounced the res­ig­na­tion to state staff on Fri- day. The re­sources agency de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing per­son­nel is­sues.

At­tor­ney Rex Par­ris, whose firm filed the law­suit, said in a writ­ten state­ment Fri­day that the case al­leges a broad and com­plex con­spir­acy in­volv­ing other of­fi­cials.

“We are not sur­prised that Ne­chodom re­signed a day af­ter the fil­ing of this law­suit,” Par­ris said. “We are con­fi­dent he is just one of many res­ig­na­tions to come.”

Ne­chodom’s res­ig­na­tion was un­ex­pected, although he had in­creas­ingly been called upon by state of­fi­cials to ex­plain prob­lems in the oil and gas di­vi­sion’s over­sight of the oil in­dus­try and a pa­rade of em­bar­rass­ing blun­ders.

The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion failed to meet an April 30 dead­line for mak­ing public a broad range of in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing the source, vol­ume and dis­posal of wa­ter used in oil and gas pro­duc­tion.

The agency said the law, which leg­is­la­tors ap­proved last year, vastly in­creased the data that the state is re­quired to col­lect from oil com­pa­nies. Reg­u­la­tors are now re­quired to track 200 bil­lion data el­e­ments, a task that oil di­vi­sion of­fi­cials said ex­ceeded the ca­pac­ity of its an­ti­quated data man­age­ment sys­tem.

Ne­chodom blamed the re­port­ing fail­ure on “un­fore­see­able per­son­nel and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.”

The law is meant to al­low state of­fi­cials to track the wa­ter used in oil and gas pro­duc­tion more closely. Up to 19 gal­lons of wa­ter may be pumped out of the ground for ev­ery gal­lon of oil.

Ne­chodom and other of­fi­cials de­fended the agency’s re­sponse to the dis­cov­ery that oil waste­water was be­ing in­jected into pro­tected aquifers. The agency said it would re­view the lo­ca­tion and op­er­a­tions of more than 2,500 wells. But en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and state law­mak­ers have chal­lenged the oil di­vi­sion’s timeline. The agency has said it will take un­til 2017 to fin­ish the re­view.

In one tense hear­ing be­fore law­mak­ers in March, Ne­chodom re­ceived a bar­rage of crit­i­cism from elected of­fi­cials who re­cited one over­sight fail­ure af­ter an­other.

Ne­chodom sat stone­faced dur­ing the hear­ing, but even­tu­ally agreed, say­ing, “We all fell down.”

Rich Pedroncelli AP

MARK NE­CHODOM re­signed Thurs­day. His let­ter did not give a rea­son for his de­ci­sion.

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