Who will protect California? Specifically, its increasingly precious drinking water? Right now there is a Battle for the Ages happening over the water under your feet, with immense forces involved. And, it never should have come to this.
State agencies regulate wastewater produced from oil and gas operations. At least, they are supposed to regulate these vast amounts of polluted water. The problem is simple: where to put it. Indeed, where on or in the Earth do you put 130 billion gallons of this highly polluted water, which the oil and gas industry produces each year in California? Water that contains known carcinogens, including benzene and hexavalent chromium in concentrations that sometimes are hundreds of times above federal limits.
Down a hole. That’s been a big part of the solution. A well-engineered disposal well, located nowhere near an underground source of drinking water, can be a safe disposal solution. But the industry combatants in this battle don’t want to spend their money for proper waste disposal. Instead, they want to dispose their wastes cheaply, down holes that go in, or may go in, underground sources of drinking water. That is, they want to privatize the gains and socialize the losses.
We say ‘may go in’ because the state regulators don’t know this essential fact. This is troubling because it is exactly their job to know these facts and to protect the groundwater resource. Recent revelations show 2,400 illegal injection wells have been drilled and used to dispose wastewater into protected aquifers. This means the state regulators don’t know if drinking water aquifers are threatened with contamination or if they are actually contaminated from waste disposal wells. In fact, State regulators have begun review of thirty thousand (30,000) waste injection wells.
The “Underground Injection Well” program that has resulted in 30,000 injection wells dotted throughout California’s landscape may sound like it is composed of many discrete long underground capsules that tidily store waste fluids. This is not the case. An underground injection well is a long port through which hazardous, even toxic, fluids are injected into groundwater at high pressures (think heavy duty industrial pressure washer, but with 100 times the volume of fluid and at pressures greater than 2000psi). Where these ports are located and what materials are allowed to be injected is a murky question, and nearly impossible to answer if you are John Q. Public.
The Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program is run by California’s Division of Oil Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), originally turned over to the state by EPA in the 1980’s. It required the initial designation of large groundwater zones as a source, or potential source, for drinking water, based on concentrations of dissolved solids and the presence of hydrocarbons. DOGGR was charged with overseeing these designations. Unfortunately, these critical determinations were left to the very same well operators who stood to profit from their designation, resulting in widespread mischaracterization, and fraud. DOGGR was charged with vetting the data against the operators’ claims.
At that time, oil wells were fewer and farther between and hydraulic fracturing was only one of several conventional and nonconventional gas production technologies. But in the past decade, fracking has exploded onto the landscape, sucking down billions of barrels of groundwater – some drinkable, some potentially drinkable – for use in production. Industry then adds its proprietary chemical cocktail in order to create fluid for drilling and fracking purposes. Much of those fluids come back up as “waste fluids,” often picking up benzene and radioactive materials during their journey underground. Some of those waste fluids are injected back down into the production well, some go to Class II wells.
It is the Class II well program that is of gravest concern. By the time fracking reemerged as an ‘old, new’ technology that could access shale plays across California, DOGGR had already taken their hands off the wheel, and let drilling and well operators pick and choose the cheapest solutions for getting rid of their wastes. In 2011, EPA Region 9 realized that several aquifers – at least eleven (11) – had been improperly exempted from protection, and oil industry wastes were being injected into those aquifers. Such miscategorization may have caused contamination of those and other drinkable aquifers.
The regulatory framework does require some testing of the underlying aquifers and recordkeeping of what exactly is going into each well. But DOGGR doesn’t seem to have those records; and in most circumstances only the well operators are required to keep records. In fact, the records are so spotty and unreliable, that DOGGR can’t determine the conditions of an aquifer, or the chemical constituents that are injected into it.
In the wake of these revelations, Steve Bohlen and Jonathan Bishop, California’s key regulators, recently admitted in a letter to the U.S. EPA that they cannot ensure public health and safety nor the protection of California’s groundwater resources. Mr. Bohlen said: “The problem is foundational and it’s serious” but his agency approved the disposal of wastewater into aquifers containing drinking water that should have been protected from contamination. The state Senate recently held a March 9th hearing with members of the committees on environmental quality and natural resources. They questioned several DOGGR and CA Water Board employees and chastised them for the dismal condition of the program.
In response to these failures, EPA Region 9 has accelerated deadlines for three categories of Class II wells of concern: disposal wells injecting into non-exempt, non-hydrocarbon bearing aquifers (including the 11 aquifers improperly exempted); enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells injecting into non-exempt, non-hydrocarbon bearing aquifers; and both disposal and EOR wells that are inside the surface boundaries of exempted aquifers, but are dangerously close to non-exempt aquifers.
The first category (disposal into potentially drinkable aquifers) now must “come into compliance” by May 2015, moved up nearly 2 years from the previous deadline of February 2017. As it stands, 23 oil & gas industry injections wells have been shutdown since the summer of 2014, and regulators are still determining the extent of the potential damage. The state of California’s dwindling groundwater supplies remain to be seen.