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Controversy over oil study on Brown ranch is mainly bull

Controversy over oil study on Brown ranch is mainly bull
Gov. Jerry Brown asked state oil and gas regulators to look into potential drilling and mining opportunitiesat the family's ranch in Colusa County. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

So the governor called the guy he had just hired to regulate oil and gas in California and asked a favor: Please check out my spread to see if there's any potential for drilling or mining.

Only he didn't exactly ask. And knowing Jerry Brown, he didn't say pretty please.

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Well, I'm shocked, shocked — as "Casablanca" police Capt. Louis Renault would say — that personal favors are being paid the big boss by bureaucrats.

I'd be seriously shocked if this had gone down as the Brown administration implies: That the governor received no better treatment from his minions than any ordinary citizen would.

But was what Brown did an impeachable offense, as one conservative news website strongly suggested? It's basically illegal for an elected official to use a public resource for personal gain.

Yeah, right! If Brown deserves impeachment — or even a serious rebuke — so do at least half the people holding public office.

Granted, it was a fun story the Associated Press dug up last week.

The AP reported that Brown last year "directed state oil and gas regulators to research, map and report back on any mining and oil drilling potential and history at the Brown family's private land" north of Sacramento in Colusa County.

The governor has 2,700 acres that were settled by his ancestors during the Gold Rush. It's rolling, isolated country that ascends into the foothills. There he has built a small cabin, basically a crude shelter with no electricity or even a toilet. It's a fun, nostalgic thing for him — probably a lot more so than for his wife.

The wire service story said that "after a phone call from the governor and follow-up requests from his aides," the regulatory agency "produced a 51-page historical report and geological assessment, plus a personalized satellite-imaged geological and oil and gas-drilling map" of the area.

You know, just like any ordinary citizen would expect to receive.

But the characterization of the service appears to be a stretch. Except for a one-page personal memo, all the material collected for the governor amounted to merely a pile of old letters sent other property owners, historic data from yesteryear and some oil field maps.

"Everything is available on the [state] website," said Nancy Vogel, chief spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency, the umbrella entity for these regulators. "If you know how to find it.

"They did not do a formal assessment. That would have been many weeks of work."

The governor got back his answer within 24 hours. "The potential for significant oil or gas in this area is very low," the memo read. As for mining, that potential also "is exceptionally low."

Steve Bohlen, Brown's appointee as chief regulator, said the governor asked him about the geology of the land, past oil or gas production and potential for any future production. "I said that was easy to do," Bohlen told me. "It wasn't like 'drop everything.'"

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Two petroleum experts who aren't necessarily Brown fans confirmed to me that all this stuff is available on the state's oil and gas website.

Of course, non-connected people might need to hire an oil professional to untangle the complex web.

And anyone who has ever called a government agency and tried to speak personally with a civil servant knows about the aggravatingly long holds and robotic voice messages. And after that, there's often a wait of weeks or months for a real response.

There's no excuse for ordinary citizens being brushed off that way, as if they're the enemy, not the true employer.

It's one reason so many millions hate government.

But, hey, life is unfair and then you perish.

Being governor has its perks and most are deserved. The pay — $177,466 — is lizard low for the responsibility. And he's always wearing a huge bulls-eye.

A partisan shot was fired by the Republican National Committee immediately after the AP story: "Gov. Brown's hypocrisy knows no bounds. He's abusing the taxpayers' money for the prospect of getting rich off oil, all while hypocritically advocating for clean energy."

Yada yada. That's a reason so many hate politics.

Anyway, isn't this the American dream? Someone discovers oil on your property and you're suddenly rich. If there were oil or gas under that old ranch, Brown would be nuts not to pump it out.

His late father, Pat Brown, after being governor, got rich off Indonesian oil imports.

Actually, I accept the notion that Jerry Brown was mostly just curious about the geology and knew where he could quickly find the answer.

Another story being circulated — this one by a lawyer suing the state — is that regulator Bohlen emailed the report to Brown, and the governor threatened to fire him if he ever left such an email trail again.

"That's just absolutely false," Bohlen told me. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

What happened, the regulator said, was that he emailed the governor's request to employees, the governor saw it and phoned him. "He asked me to be careful about what I sent by email because of public record laws," Bohlen said. "Did he threaten me? Good heavens, no."

Bohlen hand-delivered the report to the governor.

Brown can be criticized for many things. But not this.

Calling up an appointee and asking whether there's oil on your land is human and within the permissible parameters of political prerogative.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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