Pump jacks and wells are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation in 2014 near McKittrick, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Nearly two weeks ago, the day after Gov. Gavin Newsom fired California's top oil and gas regulator, the governor said he does not have the legal authority to impose a moratorium on permits for hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.
"The governor of California cannot do that," Newsom told reporters on July 12.
Now, two key lawmakers — the chairs of the state Senate and Assembly committees overseeing large parts of the oil industry — say they're open to giving Newsom the power to bring new fracking operations to a halt in California, setting up what could be a significant battle with the powerful oil industry.
"I believe that there would be support in the Legislature to provide him with that legal authority," said Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, D-Glendale, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.
"I don't think it's our responsibility to be expanding oil production and well stimulation in California," Friedman added.
"I'm absolutely up for that partnership with this governor," said Henry Stern, D-Ventura, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.
Hydraulic fracturing is an oil well stimulation method aimed at getting fuel out of the ground by using water and chemicals to crack open geological formations, allowing oil and water under the ground to flow more freely.
The Kern County Oil Spill
The oil industry says the technique helps provide the nation with a consistent source of domestic energy.
Environmentalists say the chemicals used in the technique lead to air and water pollution and the potential contamination of drinking water. The work has also been blamed for causing earthquake activity.
The energy industry plans to increase its use of hydraulic fracturing, according to Deborah Sivas, a Stanford professor of environmental law who directs the school's Environmental Law Clinic and is a critic of the practice.
"It's on the horizon that the oil companies want to increasingly use fracking in Southern California, where it's a technique that could potentially get more oil out of the ground. That's ramping up," said Sivas.
To use the method, oil companies have to obtain permits from the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), an agency that's been under increasing scrutiny.
Currently, the division is overseeing the investigation and cleanup of one of California's largest oil spills in decades, the release of more than 1 million gallons of oil and water from a Chevron oil well site in Kern County, involving steam injection, a different method of oil extraction.
Two weeks ago, the advocacy groups Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance released data showing that DOGGR had been issuing fracking permits at twice the rate this year compared to 2018. The groups also revealed that several agency employees owned stock in the companies they regulate.
"You can't do that unilaterally. Legally you cannot," Newsom said. "I have explored that during my transition," he said, adding that he has pushed for an overall transition from fossil fuel to more renewable sources of energy.
Representatives of the governor's office did not return a request for comment on what led Newsom to come to that determination. A spokeswoman for the Department of Conservation, which oversees DOGGR, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The governor was asked about the issue again on Wednesday after he took a tour of the Chevron oil spill site in the area of the town of McKittrick.
"The Legislature is going to need to make that determination. I certainly am inclined to investigate that and move in that direction," Newsom said.
Friedman said she's open to working with Newsom to make sure he has the authority to issue a moratorium on new fracking permits.
"We look forward to having a clean economy, using renewable sources of fuel. We have to start setting ourselves seriously on the road to accomplishing that. If the governor thinks he needs the Legislature's help ... to make that vision happen, I stand willing and able to do that," she said.
Stern said the governor may already have the authority to issue a moratorium.
"He's got a lot on his plate. Now this one has got to move to the top of the agenda. It's an urgent situation," said Stern.
The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the region's oil industry, told KQED that a halt in new fracking operations would hurt the economy.
"Shutting down oil and gas production would increase dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East, eliminate hundreds of thousands of good-paying careers — including opportunities for blue collar and labor workers — and make energy less affordable for middle and working class Californians," Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the association's president, said in an emailed statement.
"Historically, our industry has shown a willingness to collaboratively work with regulators and elected officials toward landmark environmental legislation like the Cap-and-Trade program and the (SB4), and we'll continue to work together to drive the most immediate improvements in carbon reductions, economic security, and reliable access to energy for all," Reheis-Boyd said.
Stanford's Sivas said DOGGR has the power currently to stop issuing fracking permits.
"In my view, it could also issue a broader, sweeping set of regulations," she said. "The agency and the governor could say, 'We've studied this and this is not a good way for California to go forward, and we're just not going to do fracking permits anymore.' "