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Oil vs Water: California's Underground Battle

The word "fracking" exploded into the American vocabulary just a few years ago. People from Pennsylvania to Wyoming found chemicals creeping into their drinking water; some could light flammable gases straight from the faucet (video).as oil companies injected chemical-laced water deep underground to fracture gas-bearing rock. But in California, a narrow industry definition of fracking and the inattention of regulators kept the state mostly out of the conversation.

Now, with much of the nation suffering from record drought, citizen awareness is rising. California has no water to spare even in good years and global warming is expected to continue to constrict the region's clean water sources for people and crops. And no state agency is even measuring how much fresh water is lost to oil and gas drilling, or regulating any part of fracking or water "injection" in oil wells. A report by the Environmental Working Group details the complete failure of regulators, who until recently barely acknowledged that fracking exists in California. Regarding water risks, the report said: 

 

[T]he state has never assessed fracking’s risks to California’s groundwater. In [a] 2011 letter, Sen. Fran Pavley asked the division to “provide the results of any risk assessments that the State of California has conducted regarding potential groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing.” The 

agency responded: “The division does not know of any state risk assessment regarding potential groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracture.” 

 

the state has never assessed fracking’s risks to California’s groundwater. In her 2011 letter, 
Sen. Fran Pavley asked the division to “provide the results of any risk assessments that the State of California 
has conducted regarding potential groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing.” [38] The 
agency responded: “The division does not know of any state risk assessment regarding potential groundwater 
contamination associated with hydraulic fracture.”
the state has never assessed fracking’s risks to California’s groundwater. In her 2011 letter, 
Sen. Fran Pavley asked the division to “provide the results of any risk assessments that the State of California 
has conducted regarding potential groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing.” [38] The 
agency responded: “The division does not know of any state risk assessment regarding potential groundwater 
contamination associated with hydraulic fracture.”
the state has never assessed fracking’s risks to California’s groundwater. In her 2011 letter, 
Sen. Fran Pavley asked the division to “provide the results of any risk assessments that the State of California 
has conducted regarding potential groundwater contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing.” [38] The 
agency responded: “The division does not know of any state risk assessment regarding potential groundwater 
contamination associated with hydraulic fracture.” [

Beyond actual hydraulic fracturing, California drillers including Chevron,and the Shell/Exxon subsidiary called Aera Energy also use millions of gallons of water for steam injection that heats sludgy "heavy oil" to pull more out of older wells. A few things state regulators should have known:

  • Oil operators in California's Central Valley, which use more than 300 gallons of water for every barrel of oil they reap, get all the water they want in drought years from he state's irrigation system while farmers have to let thousands of acres go dry (See more on this in a report from Circle of Blue, a scientist/journalist group that tracks endangered natural reseources worldwide)
  • The total of irrigation water received yearly by California drillers is 8.4 billion gallons, also from the Circle of Blue report, which merely consulted state water agencies. 
  • Much injection-well water could be recycled for agriculture but largely is not because it costs more than disposal by injecting the waste in deep wells (which themselves have caused earthquakes, but that's another story).
  • A Central Valley farmer sued Aera Energy in 2001--and won--for polluting the farm's underground aquifer with oil well wastewater (a fight over punitive damages is still going on).

California's Legislature and its chief regulator, after a barrage of bad publicity, are finally talking about regulating fracking and injection wells. One new bill would put a moratorium on fracking until actual regulation of drilling and chemical use is in place. But recent history on the issue is not encouraging.

  • Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance, fired his top oil and gas regulators last December at the behest of the Western States Petroleum Association (i.e. Chevron, Aera Energy, Occidental Petroleum). The companies objected to tougher scrutiny of injection wells following the death of an oilfield worker in a boiling pit of wastewater at a Chevron injection field. 
  • State Sen. Michael Rubio, a key Democrat on the state Senate energy committee,said he very much agreed with Brown's actions.
  • State Sen. Fran Pavley this year introduced a bill that would simply notify local residents of planned fracking activity. No regulation involved, just notification. That bill died in the state Senate under a withering barrageof lobbying by WSPA. Several Democrats including Rubio failed to vote on the bill, dooming it as completely as a "no" vote, without taking any responsibility.

So California is late to the game on wondering what the oil industry is doing with its water, but at least now it's not an issue hiding on the back pages of non-regulators at the state Division of OIl, Gas and Geothermal Resources. That's DOGGR, which must mean dog with no bite.