Stop dumping oil wastewater in aquifers

This editorial by SBCAN Executive Director Ken Hough ran in the Santa Maria Times on March 10, 2017:

You may know that for every barrel of crude oil produced in Santa Barbara County oilfields, there are about nine barrels of produced water. Some produced water is turned into steam and pumped into the oil field to help make more of the thick crude oil flow. Other produced water is injected into the ground.

However, some of the wastewater from oil production in Santa Barbara County is being injected into underground water sources protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. There are nine places in North County where this is occurring, three of them just north of Lompoc.

In spite of these protections, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to sacrifice these aquifers, allowing the practice to continue. In 2015, after reports revealed that wastewater was illegally being dumped into protected aquifers, the state gave the industry two years to submit exemption applications. The applications were due Feb. 15, but oil officials decided to ignore this deadline, and continue to dump toxic waste into protected Santa Barbara County aquifers.

Oil companies have already begun the process of asking for cover to pollute our underground water resources. The first level of review is with the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). This agency has recommended every application that has come across its desk so far, which is a good indication of how they’ll likely rule on Santa Barbara’s applications once they are submitted.

In my recent column, I asked how well the EPA, under the new administration, might be expected to protect our water. It is clear from Cabinet picks, appointments and statements made by President Trump that the fossil fuel industry will be strongly favored over cleaner, alternative energy, and favored over the environment.

It appears the best chance we have to protect our aquifers is to convince state legislators, Gov. Brown and his regulators at DOGGR to reverse course and deny the applications.

David Bunn, director of the Department of Conservation, which oversees DOGGR, and Thomas Howard, executive officer of the State Water Resources Control Board, wrote in the Sacramento Bee on Feb. 24 that, all “of the aquifer exemptions the state is seeking are for aquifers that naturally contain petroleum, are brackish, and/or do not contain water that could be used for irrigation or household purposes.”

Many of the aquifers proposed for exemption, however, actually contain water that’s far less salty than the ocean. California increasingly relies on desalination. The aquifers in question could be better options than the ocean.

We don’t know what will happen if we allow waste injection into these aquifers, and how it may alter our underground water resources. For example, injection activity is known to cause earthquakes. The oilfields in Santa Barbara County are near multiple faults. The next earthquake could cause oil and other toxics to move along new pathways in the fault.

Though we are getting good rain now, our region is always prone to drought. We may very well need that groundwater in the future. The state should not approve these exemptions. State legislators and Gov. Brown must prioritize the health and safety of their constituents and protect our underground water resources from potential contamination by demanding that state oil regulators deny these water-sacrifice applications.

Ken Hough is executive director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). He can be reached at [email protected].