For years, Gov. Jerry Brown has cultivated the image of a global environmental leader. But in reality, many California environmentalists say Brown's reputation has been undermined by decisions favoring the fossil fuel industry and his top donors. And now critics are once again questioning the self-styled green governor because of his recent appointment of Cliff Rechtschaffen — an Oakland resident and former top Brown aide who played a key role in the firing of state regulators who tried to stop oil companies from polluting California's underground water supplies.
Despite fierce opposition from activists, the state Senate confirmed Rechtschaffen's appointment earlier this month to California's influential Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the state's energy industry. To some activists, Brown's appointment of Rechtschaffen appears to have been a favor to Big Oil.
Rechtschaffen's "record shows he is not going to protect the public interest," said Liza Tucker, an advocate with the group Consumer Watchdog. "Why would we want the fox in charge of the henhouse?"
But Tucker also said Brown's decision came as no surprise, because she said he has long cultivated a false reputation for being green. "There's been a love affair for decades between the Brown family and the oil industry and the energy industry, in the form of major investor-owned utilities," said Tucker, who has extensively studied Brown's ties to polluting industries. "On the one hand he's extolling, 'Let's make a faster transition away from fossil fuels,' but on the other hand he's doing absolutely everything he can to loosen regulations for the industry."
Adam Scow, California director with Food and Water Watch, urged the Senate Rules Committee at a public hearing on Aug. 23 to deny Rechtschaffen a post on the CPUC. And for a time, it wasn't clear whether the Senate would confirm the appointment — a necessary step — because Senate leader Kevin de León had announced he was withholding his support. But then in the early morning hours on Sept. 16, when few people were watching, the Senate voted Rechtschaffen in.
The controversy surrounding Rechtschaffen stems from early 2011, just months after Brown took office in his second go-round as governor. At the time, two of California's top fossil fuel regulators — Derek Chernow, who was the director of the California Department of Conservation, and Elena Miller, the supervisor of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — had launched an effort to tighten regulations on oil drilling, fracking, and wastewater disposal. The two also decided it was time for California oil companies to finally start abiding by the requirements of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. The federal law requires, among other things, that oil companies ensure that the wells they use to inject polluted wastewater do not leak.
"They'd been ignoring that law for decades," Tucker noted.
Chernow and Miller also drafted new regulations that would increase the safety of oil workers involved in cyclic steaming, a very dangerous form of fracking. Fracking involves shooting large amounts of water and toxic chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release fossil fuels. It also produces highly polluted wastewater that, after returning to the surface, is injected back into the ground into manmade wells. Those wells, however, have a history of leaking into nearby aquifers.
Chernow and Miller's pro-safety stance made them a nuisance to the oil lobby as wastewater disposal projects came to a halt.
In October 2011, Occidental Oil and Gas, one of the state's largest oil companies, had its attorney — ex-Governor Gray Davis — call Brown to demand that the two officials be fired, according to an August 2015 sworn declaration from Chernow, who is now a legislative staffer.
"Occidental wanted Governor Brown to fire me and the State Oil & Gas Supervisor because of the alleged delays in permitting," Chernow wrote in the statement, which was part of a 2015 lawsuit filed against the oil lobby and the state of California by a coalition of farmers who were angry about groundwater being polluted.
Chernow's declaration described how Rechtschaffen, then Brown's senior advisor, demanded in a personal meeting that state regulators fast-track permit approval for one of Occidental's injection wells. On Nov. 2 of that year, Rechtschaffen met again with Chernow and Miller and repeated the demands. "Rechtschaffen told us this was an order from Governor Brown and must be followed," Chernow wrote.
But Chernow and Miller refused to grant Occidental's permit without the required environmental reviews, according to Chernow's declaration. The next day, Brown fired Chernow and immediately replaced him with Rechtschaffen. A day after taking his new post, Rechtschaffen fired Miller.
Suddenly liberated of law-observing regulators, the Brown administration eased rules on the oil industry, and the consequences proved disastrous. In 2015, state officials acknowledged that wastewater injection wells — approved after Brown and Rechtschaffen fired the regulators — may have been leaking contaminants into drinking water supplies: exactly the consequences Chernow and Miller sought to avoid.
Consumer Watchdog also alleges that Rechtschaffen ignored safety standards of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — negligent action that the group contends may have led to the late 2015 blowout at Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility in the San Fernando Valley. An environmental disaster, the leak released 100,000 tons of methane over four months — the largest methane leak in the nation's history. Some 8,000 families, including many residents reportedly ill from breathing polluted air, had to evacuate the area. While the powerful greenhouse gas billowed into the atmosphere, Brown and Rechtschaffen visited Paris in December of that year to participate in the historic climate accords, where they were hailed as leaders in the fight against global warming.
Miller and Chernow's proposed regulations on cyclic steaming also disappeared — even in the wake of a grisly incident in June 2011 at a Kern County oilfield. There, Robert David Taylor fell into a sinkhole and dissolved in acid during a cyclic steaming operation. His death was caused "by the improper approval of injection wells," the 2015 lawsuit alleged, and revealed the need for better safeguards against worker injury.
"But when Rechtschaffen fired [Miller], he deep-sixed the regulations — they never saw the light of day," said Tucker at Consumer Watchdog.
Just two months after Chernow and Miller were fired, Brown's replacement for Miller, Tim Kustic, granted Occidental a permit without a required environmental review. Occidental promptly contributed $250,000 to Gov. Brown's ballot measure, Proposition 30. The company made another quarter-million-dollar donation later in the year. And since 2011, Occidental has donated $235,000 to Brown's Oakland charter school, the Oakland Military Institute, records show.
Chernow declined to comment for this report. Rechtschaffen's office staff declined an interview request.
In an email to the Express, Terrie Prosper, director of the California Public Utilities Commission's news and outreach office, wrote that "[t]he allegations [that Rechtschaffen fired two regulators for attempting to uphold existing laws] are totally baseless and do not merit a response." She said Rechtschaffen "is fully committed to fighting climate change."
In addition, not all environmentalists oppose Rechtschaffen's appointment. "To suggest he is any kind of friend of big business and industry is insane," said James Wheaton, president of the Oakland-based Environmental Law Foundation. Wheaton said he has personally known Rechtschaffen for decades.
The Senate Rules Committee usually rubber stamps the governor's appointees but didn't in this case. Two of the five senators on the committee withheld their support for Rechtschaffen. One of them, de León, pointed out that a "perception, right or wrong, that the PUC is cozy with the very industries that it regulates is prevalent among a handful of senators."
Rechtschaffen denied allegations that he has been friendly with big business and utilities. "I have been a strong advocate at the PUC for the public interest, even if it means going against the interest of the utilities," he told the committee.
However, de León's tough stance against Rechtschaffen's confirmation abruptly weakened three weeks later. At a late-night Senate session that began Friday, Sept. 15, de León and his fellow lawmakers confirmed Rechtschaffen just before 2:30 a.m.
Though Brown called the shots that led to Chernow and Miller losing their jobs, Tucker blames Rechtschaffen for not standing up to the governor.
"You don't have to leave your morals at the door when your boss tells you to do something that's illegal — you should be prepared to walk out the door if you feel the line has been crossed," Tucker said.