A state Senate panel voted unanimously Wednesday to advance Gov. Jerry Brown's appointment to head the California 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 called, 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. Brown appointed Nechodom to the position in December 2011.
During Nechodom's confirmation hearing on Wednesday, members of the Senate Rules Committee repeatedly pressed him 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, adding 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. The Sacramento Democrat and other members emphasized that public health must take precedence over oil industry profits. Before moving for a vote, Steinberg asked Nechodom to provide a written assurance that public health would be his pre-eminent concern.
Under Steinberg's questioning, 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 was praised for bringing renewed transparency and openness to the agency. Witnesses representing both the energy industry and environmental interests similarly lauded his expertise and 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.