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L.A. taps Long Beach engineer as petroleum czar

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Monday that he was tapping a Long Beach petroleum engineer to oversee oil and gas operations in the city, filling a job that had not been held full time for decades.

Garcetti and his staff praised Uduak-Joe Ntuk, newly chosen as petroleum administrator, as an expert with technical knowledge who could also engage with the community.

Ntuk “has the skills and background to work with our residents, industry and regulators — to help manage oil and gas activities in our neighborhoods, and play a role in steering L.A. toward a cleaner, more sustainable future,” Garcetti said in a statement.

Ntuk has been employed by the city of Long Beach as a petroleum engineering associate, helping to oversee an oil field operated by the city. He worked previously for the petroleum giant Chevron in the San Joaquin Valley. 

The Long Beach native has also volunteered with a nonprofit formed by former Vice President Al Gore to spotlight the problem of climate change and pursued fellowships in sustainability with the London Business School and the nonprofit Green for All.

“I will focus on doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of L.A.’s communities, while taking a measured approach to the many complex issues raised by fossil fuel extraction in a large city,” Ntuk said in a statement released by Garcetti.

Matt Petersen, chief sustainability officer for Garcetti, called Ntuk “a fairly unique candidate with oil and gas expertise.”

“It was also important to the mayor and the Board of Public Works to find someone familiar with working with the community,” Petersen said.

Beyond his engineering work, Ntuk has also been active in Democratic politics in Southern California: He ran unsuccessfully for the Long Beach Unified school board two years ago and served as president of the Long Beach Democratic Club in recent years. He also garnered attention at the California Democratic Convention in Anaheim last year, after he recorded a politically damaging video of U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez imitating a Native American “war cry.” 

The hire had been closely watched by environmental activists with the STAND-L.A. Coalition, who complained that a City Council vote to specifically find someone with “experience or credentials” in the oil and gas field would result in candidates skewed toward the industry. Richard Parks, president of the nonprofit Redeemer Community Partnership, said he didn’t immediately see a “public health perspective” reflected in Ntuk’s credentials.

“I personally don’t know him but it appears that they have turned to someone with strong ties to the industry,” Parks said, citing the fact that Ntuk had previously worked for Chevron.

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Assn., said the industry group was “pleased that the city hired an administrator with technical expertise.” The group had earlier encouraged L.A. to hire “a qualified technical professional with experience in oil and gas production.”  

For decades, city codes have laid out a long list of duties for the petroleum administrator, who is supposed to coordinate all matters tied to oil and gas production across Los Angeles. But over time, the job had been reduced to an off-and-on duty performed by a city analyst.

The absence of an active, involved petroleum administrator had become a bone of contention with environmental and neighborhood activists, who argue that government agencies that regulate oil and gas drilling have neglected to coordinate to protect neighbors living near urban wells.

For instance, complaints about foul odors and nosebleeds near a South L.A. drilling site piled up for years before the problems grabbed headlines and AllenCo Energy Inc. agreed to suspend operations. The company has paid millions for fines and upgrades since and, under a court injunction won by City Atty. Mike Feuer, can reopen only after meeting new restrictions.

Activists argue that regulators were too slow to respond to the problems, especially since L.A. had imposed conditions decades earlier that were supposed to stop odors and other hazards from bothering neighbors.

The risks of oil and gas operations again drew attention after a massive gas leak just north of the city prodded thousands of people out of their homes in Porter Ranch. That debacle — along with a string of disputes over oil extraction in South L.A. neighborhoods and a lawsuit accusing the city of “rubber-stamping” drilling plans  — has ramped up pressure on city officials to tighten municipal oversight over oil and gas operations.

In February, City Council President Herb Wesson proposed that the city immediately fill the job, saying the city needed “a more proactive approach.”

In an interview, Ntuk said he would serve as a “single point of contact for community stakeholders.”

He and other city officials said he would also make recommendations to city leaders on petroleum issues, assess if drilling sites are complying with local, state and federal laws, and coordinate with other city departments to address concerns about existing sites.

Ntuk is expected to start work in early October, overseeing the newly created Office of Petroleum and Natural Gas Administration and Safety within the Board of Public Works. 

His anticipated salary is roughly $133,500 annually.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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UPDATES:

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information about Ntuk’s expected salary.

2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.

This article was originally posted at 1:55 p.m.

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