Capitol Alert

California oil and gas division chief stepping down

This Thursday March 6, 2014 photo shows the setting sun behind pumpjacks operating at the Inglewood oil fields in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles.
This Thursday March 6, 2014 photo shows the setting sun behind pumpjacks operating at the Inglewood oil fields in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. AP

Steven Bohlen, the head of California’s embattled oil and gas division, is resigning after about 18 months on the job.

In a resignation letter Monday obtained by The Sacramento Bee, Bohlen, supervisor of the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said he plans to return to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he previously worked.

He said in an interview that he will stay on as an unpaid science adviser to the division.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to appoint Ken Harris, executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, to replace him.

Bohlen inherited a department mired in controversy around its oversight of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling operations, including a failure to shield protected aquifers from wastewater injections.

Amid persistent criticism, Bohlen said the division, after “getting those issues on the table,” is “really starting to fix things.”

“It’s not as obvious to the public now, but certainly it will be increasingly obvious that the division has turned a corner,” he said. “I think the future looks very bright.”

Bohlen said he first spoke with Brown in April about returning to Lawrence Livermore.

Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a prepared statement that the oil and gas division remains “far too close to the oil industry it is supposed to regulate.”

“The next supervisor must address Californians’ concerns about water contamination and safety risks from drilling and fracking,” he said.

Bohlen was at the center of a flap this fall over a disclosure that Brown had asked his appointee to review records on minerals and oil drilling on land his family owns in Colusa County. Bohlen said he was “baffled” by the controversy.

“The governor did call me up, and he said, ‘I apparently have some old wells on my property. What do you know about them?’ ” Bohlen said.

He said accommodating the governor’s request took “at most an hour’s worth of work.”

Critics have said it was a misuse of state funds to analyze records for Brown’s personal use. The Governor’s Office produced a handful of examples of other people getting similar public information.

In a prepared statement, Brown said Bohlen “brought strong leadership and valuable scientific expertise to the job of improving oil and gas oversight.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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