California’s top oil regulator steps down amid neighborhood drilling battle

Amid a statewide battle over the future of fossil fuels, Uduak-Joe Ntuk stepped down last week as California’s top oil and gas regulator after three years in the job, state officials confirmed Wednesday.

Ntuk, a former Chevron engineer and petroleum czar for Los Angeles, was appointed as head of the California Geologic Energy Management Division by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019.

‘We are deeply thankful for Mr. Ntuk’s service and contributions to CalGEM and the state these last three years,’ said David Shabazian, director of the Department of Conservation.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Ntuk said he stepped down to focus on family and move forward with his career.

‘I’m incredibly proud of our work at CalGEM over the past three years, especially enacting the nation’s strongest regulations for protecting communities of color from the impacts of oil drilling, moving towards ending the practice of fracking in California, and securing more than $100 million in state and federal funding to address the state’s century long challenge of orphan oil wells,’ Ntuk said.

His departure comes just after the division began implementing a ban on neighborhood drilling that oil and gas industry groups are trying to overturn through a referendum. Lawmakers passed the ban on drilling within 3,200 feet of schools, homes and other community sites last year. Ntuk’s agency had previously begun a regulatory process to put similar restrictions in place, but some environmental groups thought it was taking too long.

Ntuk took on the leadership role at a time of change in the agency, which oversees and permits oil and gas drilling. The division, previously called the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, had long faced criticism that it was too cozy with the industry it regulated.

But Newsom, a Democrat, pledged when he took office in 2019 to take a harder line against oil and gas companies as he fought for aggressive climate policies. Several months into his tenure, he fired the division’s leader amid an uptick in permits for the oil and gas extraction process known as fracking and allegations that some employees held stock in companies they were responsible for regulating. Newsom also changed the division’s name.

Since then, the division has started denying fracking permits based on climate change and health concerns.

But environmental watchdog groups said permits for traditional oil drilling were climbing at the end of 2022 as the state’s ban on neighborhood oil drilling neared. Though the state has started implementing the law, it may be put on hold if the referendum is approved to go before voters in 2024. State officials will determine soon whether it qualified for the ballot.

‘We’ll be watching the Newsom administration closely to see if they will make the appropriate changes to get CalGEM on the right track,’ said Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with Central California Environmental Justice Network, in a statement.

Oil and gas industry groups didn’t comment on Ntuk’s resignation.

Gabe Tiffany, the Department of Conservation’s chief deputy director, is serving as the interim oil and gas supervisor for the state. Ntuk was the first African-American to lead the division.

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