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California Oil, Gas Chief Resigns Amid Growing Concerns About Regulation

After 18 months on the job, California Oil/Natural Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen resigned Monday at a time of rising criticism of the state's oversight of various drilling programs, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and most recently, cyclic steaming, a process used throughout the state's old oilfields.

In a report in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, Bohlen acknowledged that much of the cyclic steaming activity has gone essentially unregulated, and he said the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is moving toward establishing rules for the activity related to steam and water flooding to enhance oil production.

Bohlen has indicated that he will stay on with DOGGR as an unpaid science adviser. Gov. Jerry Brown, who previously fired Bohlen's predecessor, on Monday named as Bohlen’s replacement Ken Harris, 59, executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Brown said that Bohlen had "brought strong leadership and valuable scientific expertise" to DOGGR and that he improved oil/gas oversight. "California will benefit from his continued service as an unpaid adviser,” Brown said.

Industry groups praised Bohlen's short tenure, with a California Independent Petroleum Association spokesperson noting that under his leadership the state "took a number of steps to strengthen regulations on oil/gas producers," and regulatory decisions were "pragmatically based on science."

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said Bohlen provided "invaluable service" in a very challenging position, expanding DOGGR's regulatory role, adding significant resources and undertaking "a massive review of the division's regulations." As a result, Reheis-Boyd said, "oil/gas production in California is today conducted under some of the most stringent regulations and oversight in the world."

Earlier this year, issues related to alleged threats to drinking water supplies from underground injection control (UIC) wells and the state's lack of compliance with requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency swirled around Bohlen and DOGGR (see Daily GPIOct. 19). In March, DOGGR regulators moved to close 12 oil and gas UIC wells in Kern County and began stepped-up review of others to ensure that the state’s drinking water is protected from contamination (see Shale Daily, March 5).

Bohlen was involved this fall in a political controversy involving his using state agency resources to investigate the value of oil wells on private ranch land owned by Gov. Brown's family in Colusa County. Critics alleged that it was a misuse of state resources, but Brown's office cited numerous examples of other people getting similar public information related to their property. Bohlen told local news media he was "baffled" by the apparent controversy.

Bohlen reportedly told Brown earlier this year that he was interested in returning to his previous position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where most recently he was the program director for nuclear and domestic security (2013-2014) and previously the deputy program director for energy security (2011-2013).

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