Climate

California Orders Oil Companies To Stop Drilling Near Drinking Water Supplies

CREDIT: AP images/ Jae C. Hong

A pumpjack operates on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Bakersfield, Calif.

On Tuesday, California regulators ordered a dozen oil and gas wells to cease production over concerns that the wells may be contaminating groundwater.

Oil companies Chevron Corp. and Linn Energy LLC voluntarily stopped production at 10 of the Central Valley wells, while the two other wells were given cease-and-desist orders. While there is no evidence of drinking water contamination yet, the wells are located within a mile of the surface and within 500 feet of a water supply.

“As we’ve said before, the protection of California’s groundwater resources — as well as public health — is paramount, particularly in this time of extreme drought,” said Steven Bohlen, head of oil, gas and geothermal resources for the California Department of Conservation. “Halting injection into these wells is a significant step toward that goal.”

According to Bohlen, the “produced water” created by the drilling process is different than the water used in fracking operations.

“They are two different things,” he said. “To be clear, in standard oil and gas operations, the producers skim off the oil and reinject the water back where it came from.”

California is the third-highest oil producing state after Texas and North Dakota, and is home to 50,000 injection wells that have been operating in various capacities for decades. In 2014, California produced 205.3 million barrels of oil. California also produced more than 3.3 billion barrels of water in 2014, which is “usually very brackish and unsuitable for human use,” according to the California Department of Conservation. That brackish water is typically injected back into the reservoir where it came from.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we want to be sure that no injection is taking place into zones containing water that could, with treatment, be used for human activities,” Bohlen said.

Twelve wells doesn’t seem like much when put into the context of California’s broader oil and gas production landscape, Kassie Siegel, Director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, told ThinkProgress.

“Closing 12 wells doesn’t even scratch the surface of the threat to our water supply,” she said. “We also need an immediate halt to fracking and other dangerous oil development.”

Wastewater from drilling and fracking operations has also been causing trouble in California. Recent reports have revealed that California regulators gave oil companies permission to inject chemical-laden water into drinkable water sources underground. A San Francisco Chronicle investigation in February found that the state allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation.

On Monday, the California Environmental Protection Agency also announced that after reviewing thousands of wastewater disposal and enhanced oil recovery wells for the last eight months, it found more than 2,500 instances in which the state authorized oil field injections into protected water aquifers that could be used for drinking or irrigating crops. According to the agency, 2,100 of the wells that had been making the injections are still active. The state identified 176 of these wells as high priority concerns. Wastewater from oil and gas drilling can contain chemicals like arsenic and benzene, as well as heavy metals and radioactive material.

“These recent revelations make clear that the state simply cannot handle the vast amount of toxic wastewater that comes with these dangerous activities,” Siegel said.

The memo goes on to detail the mismanaged regulatory process and lack of communication over the last three decades that has led to this environmental risk. In December, the California EPA sent a letter to both California’s Water Resources Control Board and California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources demanding that the state come up with a workable plan to halt this practice and bring this program of wastewater injection into federal compliance by February 15, 2017.

The stakes in the debate over oil and gas extraction in California are extremely high, as evidenced by industry investment in fighting local anti-fracking and well stimulation ballot measures in November’s election. Major oil and gas companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Occidental Petroleum pumped more than $7.5 million into the pro-oil coalition Californians for Energy Independence in an attempt to defeat the bans, according to the California Secretary of State’s campaign finance database.

The measures met with mixed success, passing in San Benito County but failing to overcome the industry pushback in Santa Barbara. Not so easily dissuaded, an oil company is now suing San Benito County over its voter-approved fracking ban.

Siegel said that the extent of the current four-year drought makes it even more critical that that “Gov. Brown shut down every illegal injection well and wastewater pit immediately,” and also use his emergency powers to place a moratorium on fracking and other well stimulation techniques.

Last week the Center For Biological Diversity and 150 other organizations filed a legal petition asking Brown to do just this. Submitted under the state Administrative Procedure Act, the governor has to respond within 30 days.