State shuts 33 wells injecting oil wastewater into aquifers
By David R. Baker, October 16, 2015
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.
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.
Lawsuit: Conspiracy by Gov. Brown, oil companies tainted aquifers
By David R. Baker, June 3, 2015 4:35pm
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.
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.
EPA Cites Bakersfield Oil Train Terminal for Clean Air Act Violations
Federal agency says California oil train terminal is major air pollution source, permit is invalid without significant environmental review
Contact: Maggie Caldwell, Earthjustice, 415-217-2084, firstname.lastname@example.org, Monday, May 4, 2015
Taft, CA —The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited the Bakersfield Crude Terminal for 10 violations of the Clean Air Act, declaring the California crude-by-rail facility a major air pollution source that should have been subjected to rigorous environmental review during the permitting process. The federal agency found that the terminal’s permit is invalid and that the facility lacks required pollution controls and emissions offsets, and that it is in violation of the Clean Air Act’s public notice and environmental review requirements.
In January, Earthjustice and Communities for a Better Environment sued the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which issued the invalid permit, over the permitting process for the facility’s expansion— a process that was conducted without public review. Earthjustice is representing the Association of Irritated Residents (AIR), ForestEthics, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.
A public records request revealed communications between San Joaquin Valley Air District officials and the project manager for the terminal that included advice from the officials about how the project could avoid public noticing and pollution controls. The Air District approved the massive expansion in a piece-meal permitting process that allowed one of the largest crude oil operations in California to expand largely out of public scrutiny.
“The EPA’s announcement declares the Air District’s permit a sham and that the Bakersfield terminal is operating illegally,” said Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice attorney. “Air District officials went out of their way to exclude the public from the process and speed the approval through, ignoring the environmental review required by state and federal law. We applaud EPA for stepping in and enforcing the Clean Air Act.”
EPA’s action could subject the terminal to serious Clean Air Act fines, and should force the Bakersfield Crude Terminal to undergo the major source permitting required by the Clean Air Act.
“The EPA stepped in to protect California from this crude-by-rail facility’s dangerous air pollution,” said Vera Pardee, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal intervention is urgently needed because the air district and Kern County officials have utterly failed to safeguard public health and the environment. They’re turning a blind eye to air pollution and environmental risks such as catastrophic explosions linked to these massive trains full of volatile crude.”
“EPA’s notice of violation should serve as a wake up call to local authorities around the country who help polluters when they should be protecting public health,” said Matt Krogh, ForestEthics Extreme Oil Campaign Director. “Oil trains threaten 25 million Americans who live in the blast zone, plus millions more who live downwind of a refinery, downstream of where an oil train crosses a river, or in the Bakken and tar sands producing regions of North Dakota and Alberta, Canada.”
“In Kern County, with the worst air in the nation, the air district has harmed the health of the public by intentionally allowing this facility to violate the Clean Air Act,” said Tom Frantz, with Association of Irritated Residents.
“Given the increased pollution and hazards from refining and transporting a lower quality crude, there is immediate need for a moratorium that halts new permits and construction of extreme oil infrastructure, not the opposite fast track permitting process that Air District officials put this massive crude by rail terminal on – and in secret,” said Roger Lin, attorney with Communities for a Better Environment.
“The US Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement today is a significant step forward for Bakersfield and Kern County residents who bear all the burdens of volatile, accident-prone crude by rail transport and none of the benefits,” said Gordon Nipp Bakersfield resident and Sierra Club Kern-Kaweah Chapter Vice Chairman. “This terminal wreaks havoc on our region’s already compromised air quality and our communities now fear the risk of exploding trains.”
The agency also weighed in on the issue of vapor pressure of Bakken crude, declaring it unreasonable to underestimate the vapor pressure when permitting a crude-by-rail site and requiring vigorous monitoring and reporting of what crude oil is actually shipped. One way many of these facilities get around major source permitting is by cherry-picking the volatility of the crude oil being shipped, estimating the vapor pressure on the low end of the spectrum, which would keep emissions of volatile organic compounds under the threshold for triggering Clean Air Act review.
In addition to emitting volatile organic compounds from the off-loading of crude oil, the facility endangers Bakersfield and other communities in California by increasing the amount of explosive crude oil transported by rail through the state. There have been multiple incidents of train derailments and explosions across the nation and in Canada. An oil train that derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, destroyed most of the town center, burning more than 30 buildings to the ground and killing 47 people. Just this year, there have been four derailments and explosions in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario involving oil trains.
Jerry Brown perhaps should put his DOGGR to sleep. Not his family dog, Sutter, but DOGGR — the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — the 100-year-old agency that’s been handing out permits for drilling in the Central Valley without records, oversight or enforcement of 21st century environmental laws.
The agency was created prior to Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, “Oil!,” on which Daniel Day-Lewis’ 2007 film, “There Will Be Blood,” was based. Oil was to California what cotton was to Mississippi, a booming industry based on subsistence labor, migration, racism, vigilantism, and government officials looking the other way.
Times change but slowly. Current Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who says Kern ought to be a county in Arizona, opposes President Obama’s immigrant-rights policy. There are an estimated 66,000 undocumented immigrants in Kern County, whose population is majority Latino. More than 22 percent of its people live below the poverty line, 69 percent of them within one mile of an oil well.
The barren place is a bit like Mississippi in the ’60s, powerful enough to defy progressive norms or laws on the national level. The federal government in 1982 transferred its power to California to monitor and regulate the 42,000 injection wells that dump toxic waste fluids into groundwater. That monitoring didn’t happen, a lapse that the feds say is shocking. The human carcinogen benzene has been detected in fracking wastewater at levels 700 times over federal safety standards. Health impact studies are inadequate, but Kern community hospital managers say the county has one of the highest cancer rates in the country, which is expected to double in 10 years.
How did it happen that the Obama Environmental Protection Agency is pushing the Jerry Brown EPA to comply with modern environmental law? The same Gov. Jerry Brown signed that 1982 agreement, giving Big Oil an opportunity to oversee itself. Those were the days when President Ronald Reagan’s Anne Gorsuch ran the federal EPA, perhaps convincing California that it could do a better job.
As a result of the 1982 transfer, the feds say California has failed at oversight and record-keeping. With the feds watching, the state has two years to implement a meaningful monitoring plan.
Brown has tried to fix the problem, which undercuts his claim that drilling and controversial fracking can be addressed by beefed up regulations instead of a moratorium on fracking that most environmentalists want. He has added more professional staff to DOGGR and installed a new director, Steve Bohlen, who promises to clean up the place. Since last summer, the agency has shut down 23 injection wells out of 2,500.
The preference of one experienced state official is to peel back DOGGR, move it to Cal EPA and turning it into a real regulatory agency instead of a lapdog for the oil industry. But Brown officials prefer the uphill task of reforming DOGGR from within, and have signaled they will veto any bill that brings the agency under state EPA jurisdiction. The Legislature is going along with his incremental approach, so far.
The task will be daunting. The DOGGR mandate has been to drill, baby, drill, says state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. DOGGR’s legal mandate calls for “increasing the ultimate recovery of underground hydrocarbons,” not determining whether drilling or fracking are sustainable and safe for aquifers or human health. Her SB545 is still a work in progress, however. It stops the archaic custom of drilling permits being obtained and accepted without any written approvals or findings, which upsets the feds and shuts out the public. Until recently, an oil company simply gave notice of its intent to drill and was entitled to proceed unless the agency said no in writing within 10 days. Under Jackson’s bill, an application to drill will require written approval, and the paperwork will be posted on the DOGGR website. In addition, the bill will limit the Kern custom of keeping records about chemicals and water impacts confidential, even when a well has gone into production.
However, the bill’s language makes oversight optional by saying that DOGGR “may” require an operator to implement a monitoring plan. Decision-making power is devolved to the division district deputy in Kern, which is like expecting a Mississippi sheriff to carry out federal law in 1964 — or the present Kern sheriff to enforce immigration law today. Nor does the bill give the state EPA or health experts any shared authority in the permitting process.
At the heart of the scandal is the historic power of Big Oil against the emergence of California’s clean-energy economy with its priorities of renewable resources and efficiency. The Democratic majority in Sacramento is hobbled by a pro-drilling contingent, led by Republicans with a number of Central Valley Democrats. The oil lobby spent $9 million in 2014 in a failed attempt to exempt themselves from the state’s cap-and-trade law. The effort was led by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, along with 16 Democratic legislators. In a more striking example, state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, left his seat in 2013 to begin lobbying for Chevron, one of the major firms along with Occidental Petroleum operating in Kern’s oil fields. The oil lobby is spending large sums to cultivate friendly Democratic candidates and underwrite advertising campaigns warning of a “hidden gas tax” if their privileges are threatened.
Many Sacramento insiders believe that Brown has made concessions to Big Oil in order to protect his considerable progress toward clean-energy goals while not confronting the industry the way he took on the nuclear lobby in the ’70s. That’s understandable, if it works. Now, however, his regulatory reputation needs rebuilding. What if his DOGGR won’t hunt? What if it’s beyond reform? What will the governor and Legislature do if facing open defiance from the powers that be in Kern on a range of issues from clean air and water to the protection of children’s health to environmental justice? With the drought on everyone’s mind, can he allow the state’s aquifers to be threatened by the carcinogenic wastewater of oil production?
The DOGGR scandal drills deeply into the foundations on which state politics are built.
Tom Hayden writes, speaks and consults on climate politics and serves on the editorial board of the Nation. His latest book is “Listen Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters.” (Seven Stories Press, 2015).