As new study shows, we don’t know how dangerous fracking might be
San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2015
A long-anticipated scientific report about hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, explains just how much we don’t know about the potential effects of chemicals used in the controversial oil extraction technique. The Legislature and California’s regulatory agencies need to heed the report’s warnings and insist on more data from oil companies about their activities.
“The environmental characteristics of many chemicals remain unknown,” write the authors of the report, which was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“We lack information to determine if these chemicals would present a threat to human health or the environment if released to groundwater or other environmental media.”
The report concludes that we don’t know the risks and hazards associated with some two-thirds of the additives used in fracking, and the toxicity of more than half of the chemicals used in it.
That’s completely unacceptable, which is why the report’s authors suggest limiting the use of chemicals with “unknown environmental profiles.”
Considering the fact that there’s the potential for contamination (of both food and water sources) linked to fracking, the suggestion isn’t much of a stretch.
The report also suggests the need for a stronger regulatory response to current practices. Even the researchers, for example, were surprised to learn that recycled wastewater from the oil fields is being used on crops.
State Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, has authored a bill, SB248, that requires a new inspections and data recording process for well operations. Last week, Pavley said she intends to amend her bill to include some of the report’s recommendations.
“The scientists are emphatic that state regulators must protect underground sources of drinkable water from being contaminated by fracking in shallow wells and other potentially unsafe practices,” Pavley said in a statement. We agree with that conclusion, and we urge the Legislature to take action to protect consumers and the environment.
State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversy
By David R. Baker, Friday, June 5, 2015 7:07 pm
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.
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.
Groups sue to keep oil waste out of state’s aquifers
By David R. Baker, Thursday, May 7, 2015 5:03 pm
Two environmental groups sued California regulators Thursday to stop oil companies from injecting wastewater into potentially usable aquifers beneath the state’s drought-ravaged Central Valley.
The suit, filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, claims the California agency that oversees oil fields is breaking the law by letting companies pump wastewater from their drilling operations into aquifers that the regulators were supposed to protect. The injections were the subject of a Chronicle investigation in February.
The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) has moved to end the practice but has given oil companies until 2017 to shut down many of the injection wells. Environmentalists want all the wells closed immediately. The groups sued Thursday to overturn newly adopted regulations from the division that allow the continued injections.
“California has a drought, and we need to protect all the potential sources of drinking water we have, and DOGGR is allowing the continued pollution of aquifers,” said Will Rostov, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the suit on behalf of the environmental groups. “We want them to comply with the law, and the law is pretty clear — no more injections.”
The division declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The suit follows revelations that the division for years allowed oil companies to inject billions of barrels of water left over from oil pumping operations into aquifers that could have been used for drinking or irrigation. So far, no drinking-water wells have been found to be contaminated by the injections.
California’s oil reservoirs contain large amounts of salty water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it back underground. In 176 cases, the division let companies inject this “produced water” into high-quality aquifers — potentially clean enough to drink — that were supposed to be protected under federal law. Another 356 injection wells went into aquifers whose water could have been used with more extensive treatment.
In addition, the division improperly issued permits for about 2,000 wells that are pumping water or steam into aquifers that also contain oil, as a way of squeezing more petroleum out of the ground.
The injections angered federal and state officials, and the division’s newly installed director, Steven Bohlen, promised to end them. Twenty-three injection wells believed to pose the greatest risk to drinking water supplies have already been shut.
For the rest, however, the division set up a two-year closure schedule, with some allowed to operate until Feb. 15, 2017.
That lead time will give oil companies a chance to convince both the division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that some of the aquifers — particularly those that also contain oil — should be considered suitable places either to dump produced water or inject steam to extract the petroleum. The EPA has the authority to declare an aquifer exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, making it eligible for wastewater injections.
“If they haven’t (already) been exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the presence of economically recoverable oil makes them strong candidates for exemption,” Bohlen told California legislators at a hearing in March. “Water that comes mixed with oil is not something we want people drinking.”
Some aquifers, however, aren’t likely to receive an EPA exemption. In those cases, the 2017 deadline will give oil companies time to find other ways to get rid of their produced water, either by injecting it into one of the aquifers that the EPA has already declared exempt or by treating it on the surface.
Oil companies consider the two-year timetable short, but workable. Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association trade group, said the division’s plan should be given a chance to work, noting that it had received the EPA’s approval.
“The experts at those agencies, with the cooperation of oil producers, have made a careful evaluation of the situation and developed the action plan to address it,” she said Thursday. “This lawsuit is an attempt to thwart that regulatory process.”
The environmental groups want the injection wells shut now, while the oil companies apply to make some of the aquifers exempt.
“The division is doing it backwards, and that’s the point of this complaint,” Rostov said.
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.