California conservation chief faces grilling over fracking
Mark Nechodom, Gov. Jerry Brown's nominee for state conservation chief, won the support of a key Senate committee on Wednesday after a grilling from lawmakers over hydraulic fracturing -- and demands for more safeguards on the controversial drilling process before the upper house considers his final approval next week.
Nechodom, a research scientist by training and former senior adviser on climate change in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acknowledged the California Conservation Department was late in developing regulations for "fracking," but said the administration was moving forward with proposed rules that would make the state a leader in environmental protection and public health.
He was introduced by his wife, Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
"When I arrived at the department a year ago, fracking had not been given its fair due," Nechodom told lawmakers. "I believe we have righted the ship and we are going in the right direction."
Last month, oil regulators released draft regulations that would require energy companies to disclose for the first time the chemicals they inject deep into the ground to break apart rock and release oil.
Lawmakers, however, seized on a provision in the proposed rules that would allow oil companies to withhold disclosure of chemicals they claim to be proprietary. Nechodom said regulators were trying to strike a balance between public transparency and the state's trade-secrets law, which he noted protects the recipes of products like Coca-Cola.
Legislators pushed back.
"This is not Coca-Cola to me," said state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "How to differentiate the taste of Coca-Cola from Pepsi … is a very different question from whether or not the brew of chemicals that are injected into the ground might affect the health and safety of a community because of water supply contamination."
State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said the public deserved more disclosure.
"We want to know the science," she said. "Maybe fracking isn't a bad thing but the fact that we have been kept from knowing what is in this brew has created some real problems for the industry."
Nechodom emphasized that regulators were at the beginning of a rulemaking process that could last more than a year. Disclosure and other issues, including permitting and oversight, will be subject to debate, he said.
Despite the heated questioning from lawmakers, representatives from environmental groups, as well as oil and mining companies, testified in support of Nechodom's confirmation.
Steinberg, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, ultimately offered conditional support and the committee approved the nominee, 5-0. The Democratic leader said he wanted Nechodom to respond to lawmakers' concerns in writing before the full Senate takes up his confirmation on Monday.
"I want written assurance that health and safety trumps all else, including trade secrets," Steinberg said.
-- Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento
Photo: The Inglewood Oil Field in L.A.'s Baldwin Hills. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times