Ensuring public safety will be the Department of Conservation's main imperative as it moves to regulate the disputed extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, director Mark Nechodom said in a letter to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on Friday.
Nechodom faced a barrage of questions about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Rules Committee last week. California is still in the early stages of regulating fracking, and several senators criticized the department's draft regulations as weak and vague.
Before the committee voted unanimously to advance Nechodom's nomination, Steinberg extracted a promise that Nechodom would put his commitment to public health in writing. The letter makes good on that promise, stating that "protection of public health and safety in all aspects of oil and gas production is the Department's paramount concern."
"These proposed regulations, coupled with the Department's existing well construction and facilities regulations, are designed to protect the public from release of any fluids, including fracking fluids," the letter continues.
Lawmakers wary of fracking are concerned that the extraction process, which involves injecting a mix of chemicals and water underground, risks contaminating public drinking water.
Energy companies do not have to disclose the exact mix of chemicals they use, and senators last week pushed back on Nechodom's contention that information about fracking chemicals is a protected trade secret. The letter signals a willingness to strike a balance.
"I share the committee's view that the protection of public health and safety not be overshadowed by concerns abut trade secret protections," Nechodom writes in the letter. "Therefore, as I stated at the hearing, the Department will keep health and safety as our first priority as we develop the regulations."
As head of the Department of Conservation, Nechodom is California's top fracking regulator. He ascended to the post last year after Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed then-director Derek Chernow, who resisted Brown's urge to speed up the permitting process.
You can read the letter below: