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Newsom: Soaring Number Of Fracking Permits Led To State Top Oil Regulator's Firing

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- Gov. Gavin Newsom defended the firing of California's top oil and gas regulator Friday, strongly voicing his opposition to fracking and to the future of the controversial practice in the state.

Newson talked with reporters about the firing of Ken Harris after signing a new wildfire law.

"As far it advances a review of every single department within an agency, that is ongoing and I can assure you there will be a few dozen more changes I'll be making across agencies and departments," the governor said.

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In regards to the dismissal, Newsom acknowledged he was not aware of a dramatic increase of fracking permits issued by Harris this year. He admitted he was an opponent to the controversial practice.

"There are a lot things, unfortunately, that come to your attention with a (state) government as large as ours," he said. "I just been here six months and we are still working to build out our team...I don't think anyone was paying attention (to the fracking permits)...I don't think anyone is unaware of my position on fracking. I've been explicit about it. The fact that they did not exercise consistency with that is one of the reason he's not there."

"You will be seeing a series of announcements as to the leader there (state oil and gas regulation). There were other reasons (for the firing). Conflicts that came to our attention. Those conflicts are real and very concerning."

Newsom did admit to reporters that he doesn't have the power to unilaterally ban fracking the state.

"You can't do that unilaterally," he said of imposing a moratorium on fracking. "Legally, the governor of California can't do that. I explored that during my transition."

Newsom speculated the increase in permits was because of his opposition.

"I suspect and it is speculative that the reason there was so many permits signed was that they (oil companies) knew exactly what was coming," the governor said. "That's what I suspect."

"I'm very angry they signed off on this many permits, period," he added. "To the extent that did they do things legally, apparently that was the one thing done right, but there are a lot of questions about ethical lapses as it relates to conflicts of interest."

Newsom promised Harris' replacement would reflect his strong opposition to fracking.

Newsom's chief of staff asked the state's natural resources secretary to dismiss Harris, who was appointed to lead the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources in 2015. She also told Secretary Wade Crowfoot to continue an investigation into reports that employees at the agency own stock in companies that they regulate.

Ann O'Leary's request came hours after advocacy groups Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Allliance released data showing regulators have been issuing permits for hydraulic fracturing at twice the rate this year when compared to 2018.

The number of permits granted for drilling new wells also increased by 35% from January 1 to June 3 when compared to the rate last year, according to the groups' data. The organizations said that of the 2,365 well permits issued in those months, 45% benefited oil companies in which division officials owned stock.

Newsom took office in January and O'Leary told Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in an email shared with the Associated Press that the number of hydraulic fracturing permits had increased without his knowledge.

"The Governor has long held concerns about fracking and its impacts on Californians and our environment, and knows that ultimately California and our global partners will need to transition away from oil and gas extraction," O'Leary wrote. "In the weeks ahead, our office will work with you to find new leadership of (the division) that share this point of view and can run the division accordingly."

O'Leary also told Crowfoot to continue an investigation into allegations that division employees have holdings in energy companies and take "the maximum disciplinary action appropriate under law."

Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance noted a deputy director at the division disclosed owning stock in ExxonMobil worth as much as $100,000.

The company is a parent of the firm AERA Energy, which has received more new drilling permits than any other company in California this year, the report said.

The groups found seven other employees at the agency are invested in the oil industry.

"These conflicts and approvals reveal a biased department where oil well permitting is on automatic pilot," Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Allliance wrote in a letter to the governor's office.

The groups did not list Harris as owning any stock in oil companies and he did not respond to an email seeking comment.

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