CA OK’d Oil Firms to Inject Aquifers

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 @ 06:02 AM gHale

Over the years, regulators in California OK’d oil companies to inject production fluids and waste into what are now federally protected aquifers more than 2,500 times, risking contamination of underground water supplies.

While some of the permits go back decades, research found nearly half of those injection wells — 46 percent —began injection in the last four years under Gov. Jerry Brown, who has pushed state oil and gas regulators to speed up the permitting process, according to an Associated Press report. And it happened despite warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2011 that state regulators were failing to do enough to shield groundwater reserves from the threat of oilfield pollution.

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In California, “we need a big course correction. We need to get the system back in compliance,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA. “Californians expect their water is not being polluted by oil producers. … This poses that very real danger.”

The injections are convenient to oil companies because drilling brings up 13 gallons of wastewater for every gallon of petroleum. And one of the easiest disposal methods is simply to send that waste back underground.

The federal government is now demanding state officials take immediate steps to find and deal with any contamination and end oil-industry operations in all aquifers set aside for families and farms.

Those water supplies are especially vital because California, the nation’s most populous state and its agricultural leader, is now entering the fourth year of a historic drought.

State officials acknowledge that regulators erred, citing confusion about the boundaries of aquifers and oil fields or long-standing state misinterpretations of federal water-safety requirements. The vast majority of the permits ended up granted after the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.

For some of the permits, “we don’t know how this got approved,” said Jason Marshall, deputy director of the California Department of Conservation, which directly regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

In one case, regulators signed off on an application to inject wastewater into a federally protected aquifer, then realized their error and raced to the site.

“He had done injection for about 20 minutes,” Marshall recalled. “We just said, ‘Stop! You can’t do that. Stop.’ ”

So far, state officials said they have no evidence of water contamination.

Of the 2,553 injection wells the state identified as risking contamination of protected aquifers, 1,172 gained approval by the state or began injection in the last four years since Brown took office, according to state records. Marshall said he believes the number in those years is actually lower than the records show, but the state does not know how much lower.

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