The Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously today to advance Gov. Jerry Brown's appointment to head the state's Department of Conservation, but not before subjecting Mark Nechodom to pointed questions about regulating the controversial oil drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking, as it is commonly known, has been a lightning rod for environmental advocates who say the method of firing a mix of chemicals, water and sand deep underground is poorly regulated and imperils public health.
Nechodom's predecessor, Derek Chernow, lost his job after pushing back on Brown's request to expedite the permitting process by easing restrictions on underground injection.
Senators repeatedly pressed Nechodom on whether fracking should entail stiffer disclosure requirements. Currently, energy companies do not need to disclose the cocktail of chemicals they use.
Nechodom said that secrecy is a matter of oil companies guarding their bottom line by protecting the technologies they employ, saying that "there is a trade secret component, just as there is with Coca-Cola."
"This is not Coca-Cola to me," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg replied. Steinberg and other members emphasized that public health must take precedence over oil industry profits. Before moving to a vote,Steinberg asked Nechodom to provide a written assurance that public health would be his preeminent concern.
Under questioning from Steinberg, Nechodom said he would be willing to consider tightening the permitting process for new fracking wells. He also promised to institute more robust requirements for reporting information about the number of fracking wells operating in California, likening the current system to one penetrable only by "an army of Benedictine monks" willing to comb through reams of data.
Despite the concerns raised by lawmakers, Nechodom came in for praise from senators who said he brought renewed transparency and openness to the agency. Witnesses representing both the energy industry and environmental interests similarly lauded his expertise and his hands-on style.
"I have seen great progress, and I have trusted the performance to date" of Nechodom, said Sen. Jean Fuller, a Republican whose Kern County district is a relatively heavy oil producer.
Lawmakers have already signaled their desire to take on hydraulic fracturing during this session. Senate Bill 4, introduced by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, for example, would bolster disclosure and permitting requirements.
Nechodom was introduced at the hearing by his wife, Secretary of State and former Democratic lawmaker Debra Bowen. "I can cite you chapter and verse on Mr. Nechodom's qualifications as husband," she said.