Resignation of a Leader Opens Door for Gov. Brown to Step Up

06/23/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The resignation of Mark Nechodom, the embattled head of the California Department of Conservation, is a welcome move for anyone who cares about the health and safety of Californians, our state's limited water supply, and our environment. Nechodom was replaced last week by David Bunn, a UC Davis Assistant Adjunct Professor, but it would be naïve to think that California's troubles with oil and gas development will end with Nechodom's exit, and the new replacement.

Nechodom's tenure was riddled with flawed leadership and negligence within the department --particularly at the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources, which oversees the oil and gas industries. It seems like every week there is a new scandal displaying the very real consequences of allowing oil drilling without any regulation or oversight - from a corroded pipeline rupturing and spilling 100,000 gallons of oil in Santa Barbara to oil companies pumping waste into underground drinking water during the drought.

Regardless of David Bunn taking hold of the reigns Nechodom meekly held at the Department of Conservation, California's future relationship with oil and with the companies that profit from them undoubtedly will depend on Gov. Jerry Brown's leadership.

Gov. Brown's record with dirty fossil fuels could be described as paradoxical. On the one hand, California has made significant headway under Brown's leadership toward ambitious goals to cut emissions and transition to clean energy. However, the governor's efforts to position himself and the state as a leader on environmental issues is severely undercut by his permissive stance on the expansion of fracking and other risky unconventional oil and gas extraction methods.

The oil and gas industries have a long history in California and as it becomes more difficult to extract oil buried deep in rock and shale they are increasingly turning to extreme drilling methods that are inherently more dangerous and even more toxic. Methods like fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam are reliant on a toxic cocktail of water and chemical compounds injected into the earth. The effects are documented and they include methane emissions, water contamination and increased seismic activity. In fact, investigative reporters in the state have demonstrated that oil companies are selling their waste to growers who are in turn irrigating our food with toxin-laced water, and that Big Oil is illegally storing its toxic waste in unlined pits in the Central Valley.

The series of scandals that preceded Nechodom's resignation raised major questions about the state's ability to regulate these drilling methods and protect environmental resources. While oil and gas companies have raked in huge profits and reaped all of the benefits of this expanded development, Californians have been left to face the tough and all-too-real consequences of the unbridled expansion of risky drilling. It's no question that the public's health is at risk.

Without leadership at the state level, communities across the state have sprung into action to protect themselves from oil and gas companies who are only looking out for their bottom lines. Voters in San Benito and Mendocino Counties, for example, banned fracking and other unconventional extraction methods.

Even with Bunn as the new director, only Gov. Brown has the power to make a meaningful change and protect all Californians from the health risks and air and water pollution that come with oil and gas extraction. Nechodom finally conceded that he and his agency "fell down" on the job after news broke of the illegal injection of oil wastewater into protected aquifers. Hopefully, it won't take another scandal for Gov. Brown to acknowledge that he too has failed to protect Californians against the dangers of the oil and gas industry and to take leadership to change course.

Californians can't afford more tainted drinking water or another spill before significant action is taken. Nechodom's resignation presents an opportunity for the governor to live up to his reputation as a climate leader and ban fracking and other extreme oil and gas extractions methods in California.