Tag Archives: California Central Valley

California shuts dozens of oil wells to stop wastewater injection

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

State shuts 33 wells injecting oil wastewater into aquifers

By David R. Baker, October 16, 2015
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

California regulators on Thursday closed 33 oil company wells that had injected wastewater into potentially drinkable aquifers protected by federal law.

The new closures bring to 56 the number of oil-field wastewater injection wells shut down by the state after officials realized they were pumping oil-tainted water into aquifers that potentially could be used for drinking or irrigation.

All but two of the latest closures are in Kern County, in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. One lies in Ventura County, another in northern Los Angeles County. Officials with California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources spent Friday verifying that they had, in fact, closed. Of the 33, only 21 had been actively injecting wastewater before Thursday.

“This is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that California’s groundwater resources are protected as oil and gas production take place,” said Steven Bohlen, the division’s supervisor.

California’s oil fields contain large amounts of salty water that comes to the surface mixed with the oil. It must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, often by injecting it back underground. Much of the water is pumped back into the same geologic formation it came from. But enough left-over water remains that companies must find other places to put it.

Fears of contamination

The division, part of California’s Department of Conservation, for years issued oil companies permits to inject their left-over water into aquifers that were supposed to be off-limits, protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The problem, detailed in a Chronicle investigation earlier this year, raised fears of water contamination in a state struggling through a historic, four-year drought.

So far, however, no drinking water supplies have been found to be tainted by the injections.

Still, some environmentalists expressed outrage that so few wells had been closed.

The division has identified 178 wells that were injecting into legally protected aquifers with relatively high water quality, defined as those with a maximum of 3,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids. More than 2,000 other wells inject into aquifers that would be harder to use for drinking water, either because they are too salty or because they also contain oil.

“This is too little, too late to protect our water,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With each passing day the oil industry is polluting more and more of our precious water.”

The division reported Friday, however, that not all 178 wells required closure. Some had already been shut down by their operators, while others had been converted into wells for extracting oil — not dumping wastewater.

An oil industry trade group noted that all of the wells closed Thursday had received state permits, even if the state now acknowledges that those permits should never have been issued.

“Both regulators and producers are committed to protecting underground water supplies, and today’s announcement reinforces the seriousness of that commitment,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Safeguarding water supplies

“California’s oil and natural gas producers are committed to operating their wells in a manner that continues to safeguard public water supplies,” she said.

Revelations that the division allowed injections into relatively fresh groundwater supplies touched off a political firestorm, triggered lawsuits, and led Bohlen to launch a reorganization of his staff.

More well closures will likely follow. Under regulations adopted this year, wells injecting into aquifers with water quality between 3,000 and 10,000 total dissolved solids must cease injections by Feb. 15, 2017, unless granted an exemption from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Share...

    Some California oil firms may lose sites for dumping … by 12/31/16

    Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

    U.S. likely to bar oil-waste dumping into 10 California aquifers

    By David R. Baker, July 16, 2015 7:26pm

    "The

    Oil companies will probably have to stop injecting their wastewater into 10 Central Valley aquifers that the state has let them use for years, in the latest fallout from a simmering dispute over whether California has adequately protected its groundwater from contamination.

    The aquifers lie at the heart of a decades-old bureaucratic snafu whose discovery has upended the state office that regulates oil-field operations and prompted lawmakers to demand reform.

    Starting in 1983, California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources let companies dump water left over from their drilling operations into 11 aquifers that the state believed had received federal exemptions from the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, which shields groundwater supplies from pollution. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency insisted it had never granted the exemptions. The aquifers, according to the EPA, should have been protected.

    After the disagreement came to light, the division agreed to stop oil-company injections into the disputed aquifers or ask the EPA for formal exemptions, which would allow oil companies to continue using the aquifers for disposal. But in an update to the EPA on Wednesday, the division said 10 of the 11 aquifers probably would not meet the legal standards for exemption. They lie too close to the surface — in one case, as shallow as 200 feet — and their water isn’t salty enough.

    One of the 10 aquifers may still be eligible for an exemption, because it may be part of an oil reservoir, said division spokesman Donald Drysdale. The division is still seeking more information.

    “We’re trying to run that to ground right now,” he said.

    Five of the aquifers are no longer being used for wastewater disposal, according to the division. If the others don’t receive exemptions, wastewater injections there must stop by Dec. 31, 2016.

    California’s oil fields contain large amounts of salty water mixed with the oil, the remains of an ancient sea. That water must be stripped from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it back underground. Often, it goes back into the same oil reservoir it came from.

    But over time, the division has allowed oil companies to inject billions of barrels of this wastewater into aquifers that had relatively clean water — water that with treatment could have been used for drinking or irrigation. So far, the state has not found any instances in which the injections contaminated drinking-water supplies. But the division has shut down 23 injection wells that it considered high-risk, due to their close proximity to drinking-water wells.

    The division has now established a timetable for phasing out all of the injections into aquifers that should have been protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, with the last injection wells scheduled to close in February 2017. That long time frame will give the oil companies a chance to find other ways to deal with their “produced water.” But it has infuriated environmentalists, who have sued the state to force an immediate shutdown of the injection wells.

    The federal EPA can exempt aquifers from the law, but only under stringent conditions. The aquifer must be salty enough or deep enough that tapping it for drinking water isn’t practical. If it contains significant amounts of oil or minerals, it’s considered a strong candidate for exemption.

    If, however, someone already uses it for drinking, it cannot receive an exemption.

    David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
    Share...

      State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversy

      Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

      State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversy

      By David R. Baker, Friday, June 5, 2015 7:07 pm
      Mark Nechodom Director of California Department of Conservation spoke at a press conference held at One Rincon Hill, located at First and Harrison streets Wednesday May 30, 2012. Both State and Federal scientist have collaborated to install over 72 geological sensors and two and a half miles of wire throughout the 64 stories tower thatÕs home to over six hundred people in San Francisco. Scientists say that there's a 63 percent probability of a damaging earthquake magnitude 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years in the Bay Area. The data collected at One Rincon Hill South Tower could be very helpful scientifically. Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle
      Mark Nechodom Director of California Department of Conservation spoke at a press conference held at One Rincon Hill, located at First and Harrison streets Wednesday May 30, 2012. Both State and Federal scientist have collaborated to install over 72 geological sensors and two and a half miles of wire throughout the 64 stories tower thatÕs home to over six hundred people in San Francisco. Scientists say that there’s a 63 percent probability of a damaging earthquake magnitude 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years in the Bay Area. The data collected at One Rincon Hill South Tower could be very helpful scientifically. Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle

      The head of the California Department of Conservation, Mark Nechodom, abruptly resigned Thursday following an outcry over oil companies injecting their wastewater into Central Valley aquifers that were supposed to be protected by law.

      Nechodom, who had led the department for three years, announced his resignation in a brief letter to John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. The Conservation Department is part of the resources agency.

      “I have appreciated being part of this team and helping to guide it through a difficult time,” Nechodom wrote.

      Nechodom did not give a reason for his departure. But a division of the Conservation Department that regulates oil-field operations has come under intense criticism for letting oil companies inject wastewater into aquifers that could have been used for drinking or irrigation.

      A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency said she could not comment on Nechodom’s reasons for leaving, calling it a personnel issue. Jason Marshall, the Conservation Department’s chief deputy director, will lead the department while a permanent replacement is sought.

      The department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources for years improperly issued hundreds of wastewater injection permits into aquifers that should have been protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a problem detailed in a Chronicle investigation in February.

      By the division’s most recent count, 452 disposal wells went into aquifers whose water, if treated, could have been used for drinking or irrigation. Another 2,021 wells pumped wastewater or steam into aquifers that also contain oil, with the injections helping to squeeze more petroleum from the ground.

      California oil fields typically contain large amounts of water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it back underground. But oil companies can inject their “produced water” only into aquifers that have been specifically approved for wastewater storage by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

      The division has shut down 23 injection wells deemed to pose the greatest threat and has committed to closing the rest in stages over the next two years. So far, the injections have not been found to have contaminated any wells used for drinking water.

      The injections, and the division’s schedule for closing them, have prompted lawsuits, including one filed this week that named Nechodom as a defendant. That suit, filed on behalf of Central Valley farmers, alleges Nechodom, Gov. Jerry Brown and oil companies engaged in a conspiracy to circumvent the law.

      Before Brown picked him to lead the Conservation Department, Nechodom had been a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He had also served as a senior climate science policy adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

      Until this year, however, he might have been best known as the husband of former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who completed her term in 2014 after revealing that she was battling severe depression that left her unable to work on many days.

       

      Share...

        Wastewater conspiracy allegations – Governor, Chevron sued

        Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

        Lawsuit: Conspiracy by Gov. Brown, oil companies tainted aquifers

        By David R. Baker, June 3, 2015 4:35pm
        Kern County farmer Mike Hopkins says he lost a cherry orchard to oil-industry wastewater contamination. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle
        Kern County farmer Mike Hopkins says he lost a cherry orchard to oil-industry wastewater contamination. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

        A conspiracy involving Gov. Jerry Brown, state regulators, Chevron Corp. and the oil industry let petroleum companies inject their wastewater into California aquifers despite the devastating drought, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

        Gov. Jerry Brown is accused of firing California’s top oil regulator after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
        Gov. Jerry Brown is accused of firing California’s top oil regulator after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

        The suit claims that Brown in 2011 fired California’s top oil regulator under pressure from the industry after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny, particularly requests to dispose of oil field wastewater underground. Brown then replaced her with someone who promised to be more “flexible” with the oil companies, according to the complaint.

        Federal officials have since determined that oil companies have injected billions of gallons of their wastewater into aquifers that should have been protected by law, aquifers that could be used for drinking or irrigation. California regulators have now pledged to end the practice, although some of the injection wells may be allowed to keep pumping until 2017.

        “California is experiencing the greatest drought of this generation, and protecting fresh water is of paramount concern,” said R. Rex Parris, lead attorney representing Central Valley farmers on the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

        California’s oil reservoirs contain large amounts of salty water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it underground. Oil production companies can’t extract oil without some way of handling the left-over water, also known as “produced water.” The urge to boost California oil production prompted the conspiracy, Parris said.

        “The fundamental goal of the … conspiracy was to preserve and expand the ability to inject underground chemicals and toxic waste, thereby expanding their oil production and maximizing profits, including tax revenues,” he said.

        The governor’s office declined to comment on the suit Wednesday, as did the state’s oil regulating agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The division is named as a defendant in the suit, as are Chevron, Occidental Oil, two oil industry associations and several state and local officials. A Chevron spokesman said protecting water resources is one of the company’s core values.

        The suit marks the latest twist in a long-building problem that burst into the open last year when the division abruptly shut down several wells that it feared could be injecting oil-field wastewater into aquifers already used for irrigation or drinking. Since then, the number of injection wells closed by the state has increased to 23. But the division insists it has not yet found any drinking or irrigation wells that have been tainted by the injections.

        The lawsuit argues, however, that at least one Central Valley farmer lost an orchard to contamination from the oil industry’s produced water. Mike Hopkins, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, had to tear out 3,500 cherry trees whose leaves kept shriveling up and turning brown. Tests of the water showed unusually high levels of salt and boron. A former wastewater injection well lay across a rural road from his Kern County orchard.

        Much of the suit involves a 2011 episode that until this year received little attention outside Sacramento and the Central Valley’s oil fields.

        Oil companies and their political allies complained that the division under its supervisor at the time, Elena Miller, had bogged down the process of applying for underground injection permits. In addition to wastewater disposal, California oil companies need the permits to inject steam or water into aging oil fields as a way of flushing out more petroleum.

        Miller had held the position since 2009 and was considered an outsider by the industry. According to the suit, Miller insisted that the law required oil companies to submit detailed engineering and geological studies for each proposed injection well before the division could issue a permit.

        The industry balked and took its complaints directly to the governor, urging Brown to fire Miller. A few Central Valley politicians had already done the same. Some environmentalists, meanwhile, had criticized Miller for what they considered her hands-off approach to hydraulic fracturing.

        Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said Wednesday that the company had not urged Brown to remove Miller.

        In November 2011, Brown removed Miller. She was replaced by Tim Kustic, who according to the suit dropped the requirement that the companies submit the disputed studies before receiving injection permits. Kustic is also named as a defendant in the suit.

         

         

        Share...