Yesterday we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Earth Day.
And you can’t think of the earth without thinking about the way Big Oil’s business model is based on exploiting resources that belong to us all.
Case in point: Kern County’s depleting oil fields is a symptom of ecological overshooting. And Big Oil adds insult to injury when they contaminate our precious water supply with their toxic waste.
Perhaps actor Ed Begley, Jr., summed it up best, “I don’t understand why when we destroy something created by man we call it vandalism, but when we destroy something created by nature we call it progress.”
This Earth Day let’s tell Big Oil to knock it off – for the sake of every person living here. Find plug-and-play tweets and posts below to help get the word out.
Twitter: #BigOil illegally dumps chemical waste in hundreds of unlined pits in #Kern. #WaterNotOil #CAdrought #StopFoolingCA pic.twitter.com/ZiDDiXcY9W Facebook: Big Oil illegally dumps chemical waste into hundreds of unlined pits in Kern County. You know, so it can seep back into the ground.Why? How do you dispose of your toxic waste?#WaterNotOil
Twitter: #BigOil’s waste forced farmers 2 pull up crops. Just. Stop it. #WaterNotOil #StopFoolingCA pic.twitter.com/pomWu2PSwg Facebook: Mike Hopkins had to pull up his cherry trees in 2013 and filed a lawsuit against the oil companies with injection wells around his orchards.“We’re farmers,” Hopkins said. Pulling up the withered fruit trees “broke our hearts.”
Read about Mike here: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3489997-181/california-allowed-oilfield-dumping-into?page=3
Twitter:Of all the ways to waste water, #fracking is definitely the dumbest. http://bit.ly/1DpwYyo #StopFoolingCA #CADrought pic.twitter.com/vvUeOsZdjH Facebook: Out of all the ways to waste water in California, oil extraction is possibly the worst and definitely the dumbest. #StopFoolingCA
Twitter: Looks like an action movie. It’s actually just @BP_Press making “safe” #energy http://lat.ms/1zCsbEQ pic.twitter.com/3FKIwIkKYM Facebook: It’s been five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and spilling millions of gallons of crude oil.Yet the risk to the Gulf of Mexico is as high as ever.How’d Big Oil pull that off?http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0420-smith-bp-20150420-story.html
In California, Farmers Rely on Oil Wastewater to Weather Drought
By Zoë Schlanger / April 6, 2015 6:54 AM EDT
The wet, white noise of gushing water rises above a background track of twangy guitar. Water is tumbling out of a pipe into a holding pond that looks as though it has sat nearly empty for ages, its sandy sides the color of parched desert. It looks like the California of recent headlines: drought so bad the ground is blowing away. Except now, here, in this promotional video for Chevron, there is water. Lots of it.
“The sound of that water is music to my ears,” David Ansolabehere, the general manager of the Cawelo Water District in Kern County, says in the video, gazing out over the rapidly filling pond. “Chevron is being environmentally conscious, and this is a very beneficial program, and it’s helped a lot of our farmers, helped our district, tremendously.”
The oil fields of Kern County, where Chevron is the largest producer, pump out more oil than those of any other county in the United States. It also happens to be one of the country’s most prolific agricultural counties, producing over $6 billion in crop value every year. But after three years of strangling drought, all that agriculture is on life support.
That’s where Chevron comes in. For every barrel of oil Chevron produces in its Kern River oil field, another 10 barrels of salty wastewater come up with it. So Chevron is selling about 500,000 barrels of water per day, or 21 million gallons, back to the Cawelo Water District—the local water district that delivers water to farmers within a seven-mile slice of Kern County—at an undisclosed amount, but “essentially ‘at cost,’” according to Chevron spokesman Cameron Van Ast. In a time when freshwater in the Central Valley is selling at up to 10 times the typical cost, it’s a good deal for farmers.
The wastewater Chevron is selling flows, without municipal treatment (though the oil products are removed), to 90 local farmers who spread it on their citrus, nut and grape crops. The Cawelo Water District might first mix the wastewater with freshwater, or it might not, depending on what crop the wastewater will be used on—and on how much freshwater is available at the time. In the midst of a drought, there is less freshwater, so the water the farmers get is saltier than in a wet year. But the farmers understand that using the salty wastewater on their crops is an emergency measure. If all goes as planned, when the rains come back the excess salt will be flushed through the soil.
But it’s a risky dance; over time, high sodium can change the properties of the soil, making it impermeable, unable to take in any more water. Trees would start to get “salt burn.” Their leaves would turn yellow, and yields would decline. Eventually, the soil becomes barren.
Ansolabehere says the wastewater mixture sent to farmers is rigorously monitored to keep from salting the soil to that degree. It is tested quarterly for salts and boron, he says. “The only reason this program works is because [Chevron’s] production water is of very good quality,” he says. “So maybe we’ll have a little salt buildup. But the next rain will flush it out.”
But the National Weather Service doesn’t foresee much rain in the immediate future. In fact, drought conditions may “intensify.”
For local farmers, dwindling water is a noose slowly tightening. Most take relief wherever they can get it, but not Tom Frantz. “I would rather let my trees die” than use the Chevron water, he says. Frantz is a small-time almond farmer who lives about six miles from the oilfields where the wastewater is pumped into mixing basins. His 36 acres are a speck in the shadow of much larger operations; vast orange groves, pistachio trees, rows and rows of almond trees. But Frantz knows farming. He’s been in Kern County, just west of the town Shafter, for all of his 65 years. His grandparents were farmers a few miles away. His parents farmed, too. There’s a generation below him, he says, who look as if they’ll take it up soon.
In normal years, Frantz depends on groundwater pumped from wells, as well as “surface water,” the water held in municipal reservoirs that flows in frigid streams from the melting snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But with the Sierra snowpack this winter at a paltry 6 percent of its typical heft, there won’t be much to melt. Chevron’s wastewater is an option, but Frantz knows what all farmers know: You can’t grow food with salty water for very long.
“It’s just not sustainable at all to use salty water, no matter how much you dilute it…. We can farm here a long time, if we’re careful about the salts that we apply,” he says. “I’ve seen the farms that have saltier groundwater, and they have severe difficulties after 50 years. That’s very low levels of salts that’ll do that.”
Frantz has little confidence in how oil industry wastewater is regulated in his area, and he is concerned by what still isn’t known about the contents of the wastewater. Recently, there was a scandal over news that state oil and gas officials for years let oil companies inject drilling and fracking wastewater into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers. The water was laden with the benzene, a carcinogen, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. “What it shows me is that we have to look out for ourselves,” Frantz says.
California doesn’t have statewide regulations for recycling wastewater for agriculture. Instead, nine regional water boards issue permits to local water districts. Once a year, the Cawelo Water District is required to send data about the salt and boron content to the Central Valley Water Board, according to Clay Rodgers, the board’s assistant executive officer. But the district isn’t obligated to test for other components, like heavy metals, arsenic, radioactive materials and chemicals that might be used in the drilling process. Ansolabehere says Cawelo has tested for radioactive elements “a couple of times” over the past 20 years, since “it’s very expensive” to test for, and it isn’t required by the board. Those tests have not turned up any positive results.
Chevron, for its part, says testing last month showed no heavy metals or chemical toxins were present in the water above maximum allowable levels. The arsenic levels were high, however, but “issues related to the arsenic concentrations in the water were fully addressed in the process of obtaining the permit from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board,” Chevron said in a statement. “Protection of people and the environment is a core value for Chevron, and we take all necessary steps to ensure the protection of our water resources.”
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board came to the conclusion that the high arsenic in the waste water was acceptable because most of the arsenic appeared in models to get “tied up” in the soil as it made its way down to the water table, says Rodgers. In other words, the Board sees no threat of tainting the groundwater with arsenic, because it largely stays in the soil. But no monitoring is in place to see if that arsenic is building up to unsafe levels in the agricultural soils themselves.
Little to no independent scientific research has been done on this type of water and how it interacts with crops, soil and surrounding bodies of water. Some scientists say there are too many unknowns associated with the wastewater from oilfields. If it is being used on food, and to irrigate land that lies above drinking water aquifers, we need to know more about it, they say—especially in light of the fact that, as Rodgers notes, the Central Valley hopes to expand its use for farm irrigation during the drought.
“There might not be a single risk out there with this practice. But the biggest risk that we have right now is that we just don’t know,” says Seth Shonkoff, an environmental public health scientist and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. “So until we know, we definitely have reason for concern. We know that there are compounds being put down oil and gas wells that you would not want in your food.”
To Shonkoff’s knowledge, no scientist has ever published a study on what compounds from the oil development process—examples he gives are methanol, biocides and surfactants—might be in oilfield wastewater used on crops. Chevron says these constituents are kept separate from the water delivered to farmers.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist, is serving on an expert panel for the U.S. Geological Survey while it begins to look into the quality of produced oil-field water from Kern County. His data are “only preliminary,” but he has found “high levels of vanadium, chromium and selenium” in the samples of wastewater he has tested (although he was unable to say if the water was produced from Chevron’s operations or another of the many operators in the area). Those levels are consistent with data from oil- and gas-produced water from other basins in the U.S., according to Vengosh.
Vanadium, a metal, is classified as “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Certain forms of chromium and selenium, both heavy metals, are associated with myriad health problems, including cancer, from chronic high exposure. Ansolabehere says the Cawelo Water District tested for chromium and selenium once, last year, and found none. It has never tested for vanadium. None of these metals are required to be tested for by the Central Valley Water Board.
Could the crops be absorbing these metals? The California Department of Food and Agriculture says it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to look. The Central Valley Water Board doesn’t sample crop residues where the water is used, either.
For Vengosh, what is most worrisome is the possibility that the water is seeping through the farmland into the water table. “It would end up in underlying groundwater. If the groundwater is moving to a drinking water source, you would end up with that in the drinking water eventually,” he says.
No matter how tough the drought gets, Frantz says, he won’t be taking the Chevron water. “It just doesn’t make sense to ruin something,” he says. “To get through years like this, we have to take some land out of production.”
But for Roy Pierucci, a farmer who manages a 160-acre pistachio farm that falls within the Cawelo Water District, the unknowns about the Chevron water won’t deter him from using it. If the water contains some as of yet unknown elements, “it would be a risk we’d be willing to take,” he says, without hesitation. He’s been using the Chevron water for 10 years and has never seen a problem with his crops. (Pierucci was featured in the Chevron promotional video, though he wasn’t paid for the appearance—he says he participated because he values what the company does for the water district.)
“I’ve really never asked what the analysis of the water is. I just know it’s available. There hasn’t been any complaints about it. I don’t think they recommend drinking it,” Pierucci says. “If [the drought] keeps up year after year, I think it would be a concern. I think the salt levels would be higher. They blend it for a reason.”
The Chevron water is vital to Pierucci’s operation, but it isn’t a game changer. “It’s not going to save us,” he says. Three years of brutal drought have left his pistachio trees teetering on the edge of survival. If the drought persists another two or three years, he says, he’ll have to start ripping out his trees and reducing the number of acres he irrigates. On another property he manages, where there is no pumping well on-site, he imagines he’ll be pulling out trees within a year. “You can’t chase water forever. Sooner or later you’re going to lose.”
This article has been updated to include a statement from Chevron regarding their internal water testing processes and results, as well as information about arsenic monitoring from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County
By Julie Cart, 2/26/15 10:10PM
Water officials in Kern County discovered that oil producers have been dumping chemical-laden wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits that are operating without proper permits.
Inspections completed this week by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board revealed the existence of more than 300 previously unidentified waste sites. The water board’s review found that more than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits are operating without permission.
The pits raise new water quality concerns in a region where agricultural fields sit side by side with oil fields and where California’s ongoing drought has made protecting groundwater supplies paramount.
Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the water board’s Fresno office, called the unregulated pits a “significant problem” and said the agency expects to issue as many as 200 enforcement orders.
State regulators face federal scrutiny for what critics say has been decades of lax oversight of the oil and gas industry and fracking operations in particular. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has admitted that for years it allowed companies to inject fracking wastewater into protected groundwater aquifers, a problem they attributed to a history of chaotic record-keeping.
“The state doesn’t seem to be willing to put the protection of groundwater and water quality ahead of the oil industry being able to do business as usual,” said Andrew Grinberg of the group Clean Water Action.
The pits — long, shallow troughs gouged out of dirt — hold water that is produced from fracking and other oil drilling operations. The water forced out of the ground during oil operations is heavily saline and often contains benzene and other naturally occurring but toxic compounds.
Regional water officials said they believe that none of the pits in the county have linings that would prevent chemicals from seeping into groundwater beneath them. Some of the pits also lack netting or covers to protect migrating birds or other wildlife.
Currently, linings for pits are not required, though officials said they will consider requiring them in the future. Covers are mandated in some instances.
The pits are a common site on the west side of Bakersfield’s oil patch. In some cases, waste facilities contain 40 or more pits, arranged in neat rows. Kern County accounts for at least 80% of California’s oil production.
The facilities are close to county roads but partially hidden behind earthen berms. At one pit this week, waves of heat rose from newly dumped water, and an acrid, petroleum smell hung in the air.
Rodgers said Thursday that the agency’s review found 933 pits, or sumps, in Kern County. Of those, 578 are active and 355 are not currently used.
Of the active pits, 370 have permits to operate and 208 do not. All of the pits have now been inspected, he said.
The possible existence of hundreds of unpermitted pits came to light when regional water officials compared their list of pit operators to a list compiled by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The oil regulator’s list contained at least 300 more waste pits than water officials had permitted, Rodgers said.
His staff began inspecting the wastewater sites in April. Initial testing of water wells has not revealed any tainted water, he said.
The pits are an inexpensive disposal method for an enormous volume of water that is forced out of the ground during drilling or other operations, such as fracking. Rodgers said that just one field, the McKittrick Oil Field, produces 110,000 barrels of wastewater a day. According to figures from 2013, oil operations in Kern County produce 80 billion gallons of such wastewater — an amount that if clean would supply nearly a half-million households for a year.
More than 2,000 pits have been dredged over decades of oil operations in Kern County, according to water board records. Oil field companies have not always properly disposed of water, Rodgers said. As recently as the 1980s, it was customary to dump wastewater into drainage canals that line the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural fields.
But using unlined pits to dispose of wastewater is becoming less common. Some states ban the practice, and many in the oil and gas industry do not consider it effective.
The water board’s long-term plan to address the problem includes requiring remediation of some abandoned pits so that contaminants left behind don’t pollute the air, Rodgers said.
In pits located near clean water sources, Rodgers said, operators will be required to install monitor wells to test water quality. The companies will pay for the testing and provide the results to water officials.
The water board will publish a series of general orders that he said will more tightly control the operation of wastewater pits.
“Our goal is to protect water quality,” Rodgers said. “Our goal is not to shut anybody down, but by the same token, they do not own the waters beneath them. Those waters are for the public good.”
If you reside in the US, there’s around an eight percent chance that you live in an oil train’s blast zone. And there’s a fight going on at the state and federal levels, between monied interests and regulatory agencies, over efforts to ensure that these trains — which have shown a tendency to burst into flames — will be relatively safe.
The increased use of hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has made oil that was previously inaccessible available to drillers. The crude then has to make its way to refineries, and while the boom in pipeline projects has received quite a bit of attention, roughly 60 percent of it travels by rail.
On Friday, California legislators passed a bill that would require railroads to tell emergency officials when oil trains filled with explosive Bakken crude — oil from a particularly productive region in western North Dakota — would pass through the state. The law reflects growing concern, across America, about the dangers of these trains moving through dense communities, including Sacramento, California’s capital.
Oil tanker cars move along a web of routes that crisscross the United States. In 2013, about 400,000 cars made the journey, a 4,000 percent increase over the previous five years. The boost in oil cars has been so great that less lucrative industries are having trouble finding rail transport for their products. In March, General Mills announced that it had lost 62 days of production on such favorites as Cheerios because the trains that had shipped agricultural products were being leased by the fossil fuel industry.
Most oil reaches its destination without any problems, but as production has skyrocketed, the railroads have become increasingly taxed. Those who live near railways have noticed the uptick, with trains rumbling through towns much more frequently, and at much higher speeds.
Last July, a tanker train filled with North Dakota crude derailed in the middle of the night in Lac-Mégantic, a small Canadian town near the border with Maine; the resulting inferno killed 47 people. Since then, derailments in Casselton, North Dakota, and Lynchburg, Virginia, have led to evacuations. The Lac-Mégantic disaster spurred protests from fire chiefs and town officials who said that they were ill-equipped to deal with a possible derailment.
In the year since, officials have moved to formalize several safety measures. This July, the Obama administration proposed a plan that involves banning certain older tank cars, using better breaks on car, restricting speeds and possibly rerouting trains.
That first point, phasing out old tank cars, is a key area of contention. For the most part, the opposition isn’t coming from the railroads; it’s the oil companies that lease the tank cars that are fighting the new regulations. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Matthew Philips explained earlier this summer:
It’s helpful to understand the three industries with something at stake here: railroads, energy companies, and tank-car manufacturers. The railroads own the tracks but not the tank cars or the oil that’s inside. The oil often belongs to big energy companies such as refiners or even trading firms that profit from buying it near the source—say, in North Dakota—and selling it elsewhere. These energy companies tend to lease the tank cars from large manufacturing companies or big lenders such as General Electric (GE) and CIT Group (CIT).
Although it is never their oil on board, the railroads usually end up in the headlines when something goes wrong. That’s why they have been eager for a rule to make energy companies use stronger tank cars. Meanwhile, the oil industry has been busy issuing studies trying to prove that the oil coming out of North Dakota is safe enough to travel in the existing tank cars. The energy lobby also thinks railroads need to do a better job of keeping the trains on the tracks. Tank-car manufacturers, meanwhile, simply want some clarity around what kind of cars they need to build.
Canada, following the Lac-Mégantic disaster, announced plans to phase out one older tank car that has been linked to several accidents over the next three years; the Obama administration proposal would do it in two.
But the oil industry doesn’t want that. Leading the charge is the American Petroleum Institute, an organization that, so far in 2014, has spent $4 million lobbying regulators and Congress. They’ve pushed back against labeling Bakken crude as more hazardous than other crude oil, even though many studies have found that it is.
Environmental groups blame this lobbying effort for several weaknesses in the proposed rules. For one, they would only apply to trains that have 20 or more carloads of Bakken crude. “If the rule is approved as drafted, it would still be legal to transport around 570,000 gallons (the equivalent of the fuel carried by seven Boeing 747s) of volatile Bakken crude in a train composed of 19 unsafe, [aging] tank cars—and none of the other aspects of the new rules, including routing, notification, train speed, and more would apply,” wrote Eric de Place of the sustainability think-tank Sightline Institute, who also criticized the proposal for not immediately banning older tankers.
And even if the regulations were to be put in place despite the API’s attempts to weaken them, there’s the distinct possibility that regulators will fall short. The government has often taken a hands-off approach in determining what gets shipped, and how — and in enforcing existing rules requiring that officials in the cities it passes through be informed that potentially hazardous shipments are coming. In These Times reported that government inspections to make sure railroads are properly labeling the product they are shipping (the Bakken crude was improperly labeled in the Lac-Mégantic disaster) are supposed to be unannounced, but are sometimes pre-arranged. Meanwhile, railroads are cutting back on the number of crew members manning trains, a move that some workers feel will lead to less safe travel.
“No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though they can fly themselves,” wrote John Previsich, the president of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation union’s transportation devision. “Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”
John Light blogs and works on multimedia projects for Moyers & Company. Before joining the Moyers team, he was a public radio producer. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, among others. A New Jersey native, John studied history and film at Oberlin College and holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University