Last month the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), missed its own deadline for shutting down 475 oil industry injection wells determined to be dumping toxic fluids into protected California groundwater aquifers. The division said it would continue to allow more than 1,600 other wells to continue injections into federally protected aquifers because it believes they stand a chance of being exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act protections.
Yet the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), a regional oil and gas lobbying group, is still suing the agency to prevent any wells from closing.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prohibits contamination related to oil field waste injection disposal, which commonly contains cancer-causing benzene and other pollutants.
In 2015, DOGGR, which oversees more than 50,000 wells in the state, promised to halt 475 injection wells in the state by Feb. 15, 2017, and impose minimum fines of $20,000 a day for every well continuing to operate in a protected aquifer. But on January 17, the division told the EPA that it would delay enforcing the law indefinitely, claiming it underestimated the time it would take to review the applications filed by oil companies for exemptions to regulation.
According to Patrick Sullivan, deputy communications director with the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, DOGGR erred in three ways.
"DOGGR never should have permitted these wells in the first place," Sullivan told DeSmog. "But after it was discovered that wastewater injection was polluting these aquifers, it set an incredibly lax deadline for closing down the wells. Then, it couldn't even meet its own lax deadline."
Sullivan added that DOGGR's reasoning for not shutting down the vast majority of polluting wells is "appalling."
"Essentially our state officials have decided not to follow the law because they believe it eventually won't apply to these water supplies. That's like driving a car as fast as you want because you think the speed limit will be changed."
Industry Groups Sue to Block (Non-existent) Shutdowns and Fines
Two years earlier, WSPA praised DOGGR for its plan to shut down the wells, saying "oil producers support this review process, which protects public health."
Now, WSPA has reversed its position. In January it filed a lawsuit, along with the Independent Oil Producers Agency and the California Independent Petroleum Association, to halt the shutdown of wastewater injections into all 45 aquifers targeted by DOGGR. The trade groups are asking that all wells remain open while the EPA reviews the applications for exemptions and that its members not be penalized the minimum daily fine of $20,000, per the state agency's original mandate.
WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd told DeSmog via email that DOGGR's deadlines "deprive operators of their due process rights."
"WSPA believes DOGGR and other involved agencies should complete the aquifer exemption review process for all pending 42 applications, and that injection operations should cease only if an application is disapproved," Reheis-Boyd wrote. "The EPA has now approved exemptions for three aquifers, and we anticipate additional approvals will be forthcoming."
Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, told DeSmog that it's ironic that WSPA is complaining about DOGGR's deadlines when DOGGR itself isn't meeting its deadlines.
"There's four million dollars a day that the state is not collecting while DOGGR drags its feet," Kretzmann told DeSmog. "Meanwhile all of those wells are continuing to pollute California's protected aquifers indefinitely."
Kretzmann believes part of the motivation for WSPA and other oil lobbying groups to file suit to prevent DOGGR from doing its job, even as DOGGR appears to be falling down on the job, comes down to Trump. "The industry feels emboldened by the new administration," Kretzmann said.
Trump's EPA Quickly Approves Aquifer Exemptions
Though DOGGR has been slow in reviewing the wells it had targeted as aquifer polluters back in 2015, it has been relatively quick, environmentalists say, in submitting applications to the EPA to exempt dozens of California aquifers from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Exemptions are for aquifers, rather than specific wells, and each exemption would allow many wells to operate in — and pollute -- the aquifer.
Three exemptions -- all in Kern County, the state's biggest oil producing region – were approved last month by the EPA, just a few months after DOGGR submitted the applications. Environmentalists believe such "aquifer exemptions" give oil companies permission to dump contaminated waste fluid into these underground water supplies.
In justifying its efforts to grant exemptions, DOGGR claims that many aquifers are too salty or otherwise polluted to provide usable water. But the Center for Biological Diversity's Sullivan says DOGGR has relied on data from oil companies themselves to back that claim. That's a problem because it doesn't account for the advancing use of technology to treat brackish groundwater in California's Central Valley.
"Many of these aquifers have water that's many times less salty than seawater at a time when desalinization is increasingly important in California," Sullivan told DeSmog.
Sullivan added that DOGGR hasn't proven that oil waste fluid dumped into these aquifers won't migrate underground to affect nearby water sources.
DOGGR critics also say the aquifer exemption process ignores the risk of manmade earthquakes triggered by oil industry injections. Last year scientists linked oilfield injections near Bakersfield to an earthquake swarm.
Environmentalists Fear Big Oil's Growing Influence on California Regulators
Environmentalists say they doubt that DOGGR will vigorously fight the WSPA lawsuit. Thomas Rebecci, a senior central coast organizer with Food & Water Watch, told DeSmog that DOGGR has a cozy relationship with Big Oil.
"[DOGGR's] mission is to help the oil companies and they haven't invested nearly enough in oversight," Rebecci said. "It's truly the case of the fox guarding the henhouse."
Other critics say the problem with DOGGR goes higher, up to Governor Jerry Brown, who oversees the division. In 2011 Brown fired Derek Chernow, the head of the Department of Conservation, along with Chernow's deputy, Elena Miller, for tightening regulations on oil companies.
"Governor Brown set the tone for DOGGR when he fired Chernow and Miller for trying to fix problems," Sullivan said. "By doing this he told the state regulators that if they do their jobs in addressing safety and the environment that they can be fired."
Brown's detractors say that despite California's reputation as a green leader, WSPA and other oil and gas interests exert tremendous and growing influence over him and the state's regulatory agencies. An American Lung Association study showed California oil and gas interests, the state's largest lobbying body by far, spent more than $36 million in the 2015-16 legislative session, up from $34 million the previous year.
Twelve public interest groups recently challenged Brown's green credentials in a report card reviewing his environmental policies.
The report, titled How Green is Brown, claims that the Public Utilities Commission has approved "unnecessary" new fossil-fuel power plants (a claim backed up by a recent Los Angeles Times investigation) and that drilling and fracking have increased under Brown.
How Brown and state regulators will respond to the fossil fuel lobby's pressures surrounding protected aquifers remains to be seen.