California oil and gas regulators still embroiled in controversy over their “corrupt, inept, and woefully mismanaged” underground injection control program — which permitted thousands of oilfield wastewater disposal wells to operate in protected groundwater aquifers — are refusing to release the results of a report on thousands more injection wells that could be polluting L.A.’s drinking water supply.
In an attachment to a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency dated July 15, officials with California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) explain that they conducted a partial assessment of the oil industry wastewater injection program by examining the more than 2,000 injection wells in Cypress District, which encompasses most of the Los Angeles area’s oil fields.
“The assessment was designed to give greater insight into the range of shortcomings in the Division’s UIC [Underground Injection Control] program,” DOGGR officials wrote to the federal government. They chose Cypress District because the injection wells there “appeared to have the highest priority” in terms of risks to public health and safety, property, natural resources and litigation.
The letter to the EPA says that DOGGR staff had prepared a draft report on their investigation into Cypress District injection wells meant to determine if any wells had been drilled into protected water supplies and whether or not they were being properly assessed for mechanical integrity to prevent leaks. The regulators also looked for fractures or other failures that would cause toxic injection fluids to seep into groundwater.
But the DOGGR letter does not report on what the agency found after examining the L.A.-area wells, or otherwise characterize the extent of the potential threat to the public.
The draft report itself “is under final administration review,” according to the letter, which means the public is being kept in the dark even while oil companies are allowed to continue injecting oil wastewater, which can contain high levels of cancer-causing benzene, and fluids from extreme oil recovery techniques like fracking, acidization and steam flooding into the wells.
The Associated Press reports that the draft report was completed in August 2014, but that its requests to see the report’s findings have so far been denied. Earlier this month — a full ten months after the AP first requested to see the report — DOGGR head Steve Bohlen told the news agency that “within weeks,” though no precise date has been set.
Oil industry watchdogs are calling on the administration of Governor Jerry Brown to release to the public the full draft report, saying that by choosing to keep it hidden, officials are giving the impression that the problems with the state’s UIC program are far more extensive than has been admitted.
“It’s very worrisome that they’ve sat on it for a year,” Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity told DeSmogBlog. “We already know they’ve copped to allowing over 2,500 injection wells across the state to operate in protected aquifers. Some of that damage is going to be irreversible. If they’ve got a review of 2,000 more wells and they’re specifically looking at whether our groundwater is safe, they need to get that information out to the public immediately.”
The need for transparency from DOGGR regarding the extent of any possible contamination of groundwater aquifers is especially critical given the water crisis in California amidst the worst drought in history, Kretzmann added.
Whatever the extent of the problem may be, California’s oil and gas regulators have a lot of work ahead of them before this controversy goes away. “The more information we get, the more troubling this state program is,” Kretzmann said. “It’s clear DOGGR has very little idea of what’s actually happening beneath the surface.”
In response to an order by the EPA to get the state’s UIC program under control, DOGGR issued emergency regulations that would give the agency until the end of 2017 to review the more than 2,500 injection wells across the state suspected of injecting oilfield wastewater into groundwater aquifers that should be protected under state law as well as the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Oil companies will be allowed to continue using the injection wells while DOGGR completes its review, per the regulations, which has caused fresh waves of criticism regarding how California regulators are managing the UIC program.
Environmental law group Earthjustice sued DOGGR on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club in May to challenge the emergency regulations. Earthjustice then filed a motion requesting a preliminary injunction that would halt operations at the offending wells immediately, but it was denied by the Alameda County Superior Court on July 17.
The head of the California Department of Conservation, which oversees DOGGR, resigned abruptly last month after he was named in a lawsuit filed by California farmers who allege that officials in the Brown Administration and DOGGR conspired with oil companies to create the lax regulatory environment that led to the illegal wastewater injections.
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