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California Regulators Miss First Reporting Deadline For Oil Industry Water Use

California is facing such a severe drought and water crisis that Governor Jerry Brown issued the first mandatory water restrictions in state history last month. But it appears that the state’s oil and gas regulators did not get the memo about just how urgent the situation is.

The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), the oil and gas regulatory agency within the California Department of Conservation, reported last week that it had missed the April 30 deadline for making public the critical information about water usage by oil and gas production, claiming it was simply too much data to process.

Dimock, PA Lawsuit Trial-Bound as Study Links Fracking to Water Contamination in Neighboring County

A recent peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed what many fracking critics have argued for years: drilling operations associated with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking) for oil and gas can contaminate groundwater. 

For the study, researchers examined groundwater contamination incidents at three homes in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale basin in Bradford County. As The New York Times explained, the water samples showed “traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids.”

The study's release comes as a seminal lawsuit demanding recovery for such damages winds its way to a jury trial later this year in the U.S. District Court in Scranton, PA. That case pits two families from Dimock, PA, located in neighboring Susquehanna County, against Texas-based, industry giant, Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation.

What’s In The Recycled Oil Field Wastewater Sprayed On California Crops?

“You can't find what you don't look for,” UC Berkeley researcher Seth B.C. Shonkoff recently told the LA Times, referring to the chemicals that state regulators don’t know to test for in the recycled wastewater the California oil industry sells for use on crops here in the top agricultural producing state in the US.

Chevron produces more than 10 times as much water as it does oil at its Kern River oil field in California’s Central Valley, for instance — 760,000 barrels of water a day versus 70,000 barrels of oil. Half of that water is treated and sold to the Cawelo Water District in Bakersfield, which mixes it with fresh water and sells it exclusively to farmers.

Nobody knows if that water contains chemicals from fracking or other extreme oil extraction techniques, because the companies aren't required to test for them before selling the water. Nobody knows what those chemicals are, anyway, because companies aren't required to make that information public.

How Much Water Does The California Oil Industry Actually Use?

When California Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history, he notably excluded the agriculture and oil industries from the conservation efforts, a decision that was heavily criticized.

The oil industry, for its part, insists it is a responsible user of water. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry lobbying group, for instance, wrote that “Oil companies are doing their part to conserve, recycle and reduce the water they use to produce oil and refine petroleum products.”

Some perspective is certainly needed here: the amount of water used to produce oil in California is, in fact, dwarfed by the amount used for agriculture. But the thing is, the state can’t make any fully informed decisions about whether or not to include oil development in water cuts because no one knows exactly how much water the California oil industry is using in the first place. That all changes on April 30, however.

Last September, Governor Brown signed into law SB 1281, which requires companies to make quarterly reports to state regulators at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) detailing the source and volume of water — whether fresh, treated, or recycled — used during oil development processes, including extreme oil extraction methods like fracking, acidization and steam injection. The first set of data required to be reported to DOGGR under SB 1281 is due at the end of the month.

Required reporting on water usage is an important first step in devising an effective water conservation plan for drought-wracked California, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, tells DeSmogBlog.

“Without good data, we can’t have good policy,” Gleick says. “And it’s long overdue that the oil industry be transparent about water use and water quality. So I’m looking forward to more transparency.”

California Urban Water Use Restricted While Regulators Give Oil Industry Two More Years To Operate Injection Wells In Protected Groundwater Aquifers

With snowpack levels at just 6% of their long-term average, the lowest they’ve ever been in recorded history, California Governor Jerry Brown has announced new regulations to cut urban water use 25%, the first ever mandatory water restrictions in the state.

California is in the fifth year of its historic, climate-exacerbated drought and, per a recent analysis by a senior water scientist at NASA, has only one year of water left in its reservoirs, while groundwater levels are at an all-time low.

The Golden State’s towns and cities only account for about 20% of all water used for human purposes, however (including residential, institutional, industrial and commercial uses). Agriculture uses the other 80%.

Half of the produce grown in America comes from California, yet 2015 is likely to be the second year in a row that California’s farmers get no water allocation from state reservoirs. In some parts of the state, agricultural operations have pumped so much groundwater that the land is starting to sink.

Governor Brown’s executive order has been criticized for not including restrictions on groundwater pumping by agricultural operations, but Brown defended the decision, saying that hundreds of thousands of acres of land were already lying fallow because of the state’s water crisis.

There’s another industry conspicuously exempt from California’s new water restrictions, though. “Fracking and toxic injection wells may not be the largest uses of water in California, but they are undoubtedly some of the stupidest,” Zack Malitz of the environmental group Credo says, according to Reuters.

Water Is Life; We Can’t Afford To Waste It

This is a guest post by David Suzuki. 

How long can you go without water? You could probably survive a few weeks without water for cooking. If you stopped washing, the threat to your life might only come from people who can’t stand the smell. But most people won’t live for more than three days without water to drink. It makes sense: our bodies are about 65 per cent water.

Calls For Immediate Shutdown Of Illegal California Injection Wells As Regulators Host 'Aquifer Exemption Workshop'

While California legislators are calling for immediate closure of the thousands of injection wells illegally dumping oil industry wastewater and enhanced oil recovery fluids into protected groundwater aquifers, regulators with the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) were holding an “Aquifer Exemption Workshop” in Long Beach on Tuesday.

Just 23 out of the 2,500 wells DOGGR officials have acknowledged the agency improperly permitted to operate in aquifers that contain potentially drinkable water have so far been closed down — 11 were closed down last July and 12 more were shut down earlier this month.

Given the urgency of the situation, it certainly does not look good that DOGGR made time to hold a workshop to outline “the data requirements and process for requesting an aquifer exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” when it has given itself a two-year deadline to investigate the thousands more wells illegally operating in groundwater aquifers that should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act all along.

Last Friday, state legislators sent Governor Jerry Brown a letter calling for the immediate closure of the wells, writing that “the decision to allow thousands of injection wells to continue pumping potentially hazardous fluids into protected aquifers is reckless.”

And protestors with Californians Against Fracking were outside the Holiday Inn Long Beach Airport on Tuesday to greet DOGGR officials as they showed up for their workshop.

Legislators Call Out California Regulators’ “Corrupt, Inept” Management Of Underground Wastewater Injection

The fallout from California officials’ failure to properly oversee the disposal of oil industry wastewater continued this week as lawmakers grilled officials with the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency for two hours while seeking assurances that they were getting the problem under control.

According to the LA Times, state senators “called the agency’s historic practices corrupt, inept, and woefully mismanaged.”

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), who said that reading the background materials ahead of the hearing “caused her blood pressure to soar,” per the Times, pretty much nailed it when she said, “There has been a serious imbalance between the role [of] regulating the oil and gas industry and the role of protecting the public.”

DeSmog helped break the initial story in this ongoing saga last year when 11 underground injection wells were ordered to shut down over fears they were pumping toxic and carcinogenic chemical-laden wastewater from fracking and other oil production processes into groundwater aquifers protected under federal law. Last week, 12 more injection wells were shut down for the same reason.

In the intervening months, the true extent of the problem has slowly come to light. It was revealed in February that regulators at California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) wrongfully issued permits for close to 500 wells to inject oil industry wastewater into aquifers containing water that is useable or could be made useable—water that is badly needed in drought-stricken California and should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

More California Oil Industry Wastewater Injection Wells Shut Down Over Fears Of Groundwater Contamination

The latest in the ongoing investigation into California regulators’ failure to protect residents from toxic oil industry waste streams has led to the closure of 12 more underground injection wells. The 12 wells that were shut down this week are all in the Central Valley region, ground zero for oil production in the state.

California has roughly 50,000 underground injection wells. State officials are investigating just over 2,500 of them to determine whether or not they are injecting toxic chemical-laden oil industry wastewater into aquifers containing usable water (or at least potentially usable water) that should have been protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

A coalition of environmental, health and public advocacy groups filed a legal petition with Governor Jerry Brown last week in an attempt to force an emergency moratorium on fracking after it was discovered that flowback, a fluid that rises to the top of a fracked well, contains alarmingly high levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.

Fracking flowback is an increasingly prevalent component of the oil industry wastewater that is being injected into the state’s aquifers, as fracking is now used in up to half of all new wells drilled in California.

Prompted by an inquiry by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, state officials shut down 11 wastewater injection wells last year over similar concerns that they were polluting badly needed sources of water in a time of prolonged drought. It was later confirmed that 9 of those wells were in fact pumping wastewater into protected aquifers—some 3 billion gallons of wastewater, by one estimate.

Since then, the fallout has continued at a rapid pace, with a new revelation coming seemingly every other month. In just the past few months, for instance, the scope of the problem has ballooned from hundreds of injection wells allowed to dump oil industry wastewater into protected aquifers to thousands more wells permitted to inject fluids from “enhanced oil recovery” techniques such as acidization and cyclic steam injection into protected aquifers.

Legal Petition Seeks Emergency Moratorium On Fracking in California

A coalition of over 150 environmental, health, and public advocacy organizations in California filed a legal petition Thursday seeking to compel Governor Jerry Brown to issue an emergency moratorium on fracking in the state.

The proximate cause for the legal petition seems to be revelations that fracking flowback in California was found to contain dangerously high levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and hexavalent chromium. But evidence has been mounting for months that drastic measures are needed, as state regulators have utterly failed to protect residents from the oil and gas industry in California.

Flowback is a fluid that floats to the surface of fracked wells and is a key component of oil industry wastewater, which is most often disposed of by injecting it underground.

Over the past few months, however, it has come to light that regulators with California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) allowed hundreds of injection wells to dump oil industry wastewater into aquifers that contain water clean enough to drink or that could be made drinkable, and hence should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency also permitted thousands more wells to inject fluids from “enhanced oil recovery” techniques such as acidization and cyclic steam injection into protected aquifers.

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