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Gov. Brown takes heat for asking state officials to research oil and gas on family ranch

Gov. Brown takes heat for asking state officials to research oil and gas on family ranch
Gov. Jerry Brown is defending himself after an Associated Press article raised questions about his decision to ask state officials to help research his family's property. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown was only interested in "the history and geology of his family ranch" in Colusa County when he asked state officials about the potential for mining and oil drilling on the property, a spokesman for the governor said Thursday.

The spokesman, Gareth Lacy, said Brown "has the same right as anyone to obtain public records" and provided examples of research done for others.

Lacy's comments were in response to an Associated Press report that raised questions about whether Brown misused public resources by asking state officials for help researching his family's land.

"The governor is interested in the history and geology of his family ranch in Colusa County — not drilling for oil or gas," Lacy said.

After Brown made his request, officials compiled historical records and a map of gas wells in the area. A summary of the information said "the potential for significant oil or gas in this area is very low."

The Associated Press reported that Brown asked for the information in a phone call to Steve Bohlen, the state's top oil and gas regulator, in June 2014, shortly after he was appointed by the governor. Brown's advisors followed up on the request.

"The Governor requested information about the geology, past oil and gas activity, potential for future oil and gas activity in the vicinity of his long-time family ranch," Bohlen wrote in an email to staff. "I would like this by noon tomorrow so I can review and take this to a meeting with the Governor."

He added in a later email, "[Please] do not forget some info on the geology" and any mining activity in the area.

Lacy said similar research has been performed by state officials in other situations, providing examples of information given this year.

In one case, a property owner, whose name was obscured in the documents, received information about wells near land where he or she owned mineral rights. In another, an environmental nonprofit called the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper was sent a list of injection wells and water data.

The issue of the governor's request came to light as part of a lawsuit against the state by farmers who accuse the state of doing an inadequate job of preventing water pollution from oil and gas drilling.

Patricia Oliver, a lawyer for the farmers, said Brown inappropriately diverted state resources that would be better used to protect California's water during the drought.

"I think that's rather curious, when we have a state of emergency, instead of trying to fix the problem, they're trying to help Jerry Brown," she said.

The lawsuit was filed after Brown fired two state regulators when they balked at making it easier for oil companies to drill in California.

"The governor treated [the state oil and gas agency] as if he totally controlled it," said Rex Parris, another lawyer for farmers. "That is not how a regulatory agency is supposed to perform."

The state has denied the allegations and said the lawsuit contains "distractions and lies."

Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the California Department of Conservation, said state agencies and the federal government are "working jointly to ensure that California is in full compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act with respect to oil regulations."

The governor has faced criticism for declining to ban fracking, despite pressure from environmental activists and some fellow Democrats. Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, wondered whether Brown's request for information was intended to ensure that no one else would be drilling around his property.

"Does he want to make sure he doesn't have to be exposed to the kind of things people in Bakersfield are exposed to?" she said.

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Follow @chrismegerian for more updates from Sacramento.

For more political coverage, go to www.latimes.com/politics.

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