Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the former head of the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, alleges he was pressured to illegally stop issuing new well drilling permits and then was fired when he complained, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Ntuk, who is an elected Long Beach Community College District trustee, left his governor-appointed job at the California Geologic Energy Management Division (or CalGEM) in January. He said publicly at the time that he had resigned to focus on his family’s needs.
The whistleblower lawsuit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claims Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration fired him in retaliation for a complaint made in early January.
At the heart of the controversy is a state law—currently in limbo ahead of a November 2024 voter referendum—that says no new wells could be drilled within 3,200 feet of homes, schools and other “sensitive” locations; existing wells that are too close to the specified locations would have to follow new monitoring rules and might not be granted permits for future maintenance.
The law, authored by Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, went into effect Jan. 1, but state officials put its enforcement on hold about a month later, when it became clear that opponents had passed the threshold to get a referendum measure on the November 2024 ballot.
The lawsuit asserts that Ntuk (who was appointed to lead CalGEM in October 2019) was pressured by the governor’s office to begin implementing the well buffer zone law and to “arbitrarily halt all oil well drilling permits statewide”—orders he believed he couldn’t legally obey.
Newsom’s press office directed a request for comment to the state Department of Conservation, which oversees CalGEM. Conservation department spokesperson Jacob Roper said in an email that the department is reviewing Ntuk’s complaint, and that it doesn’t comment on personnel issues.
Attorney Jamon Hicks, who is representing Ntuk, said Tuesday that while more information will come out as the case proceeds, it doesn’t matter whether Ntuk actually had discretion as head of CalGEM to deny permits; the issue is whether he thought he was being asked to break the law.
“What matters is what he reasonably believed,” Hicks said. “If he has a reasonable belief and he complains about that, he is protected as a whistleblower.”
Ntuk filed a complaint with the state on Jan. 4, according to the lawsuit; he was terminated Jan. 13.
Roper’s email said the department has no record that Ntuk filed a whistleblower complaint.
As to why Ntuk said publicly that he was resigning, Hicks said, “there was a concern of being blacklisted if he did not abide by what he was instructed to do.”
In the months before Ntuk’s departure from CalGEM, environmental groups were reportedly raising concerns to the Newsom administration about a spike in well permits ahead of the buffer zone law taking effect, according to the Bakersfield Californian.
Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday that conservationists have been tracking drilling activity, and while the number of new well permits has declined, the state has increased permits to re-drill or reconfigure old wells, and many of them are close to homes and schools.
(The center in May filed a lawsuit alleging the state didn’t adequately analyze the environmental effects of approving permits for 21 wells, 15 of which are in Long Beach.)
Kretzmann said he was surprised that Ntuk’s court filing suggests he didn’t have discretion to deny drilling permits, since he argued the opposite in a different legal case last year.
“California law puts public health first and there’s no requirement that the regulator hand out permits,” Kretzmann said. “It’s just a bizarre basis for this complaint.”
Regardless of how Ntuk’s lawsuit turns out, Long Beach has a lot riding on the outcome of the 2024 referendum.
If voters uphold the well buffer zone law, it could affect about half the wells in Long Beach and cost the city an estimated $20 million a year in oil and gas revenue, Long Beach officials have said.
The city has pledged to phase out oil operations by 2035, but that timeline would likely speed up if the law is implemented.