California officials have responded to growing concerns about groundwater contamination from oil and gas production on Tuesday with the official closing of 12 wells in the Central Valley.
The wells, controlled by Chevron Corp. and Linn Energy LLC, were located within a mile of the surface and 500 feet of a water supply. Although there is no concrete evidence of water contamination just yet, it is very likely that the damage may have already been done due to hydraulic fracturing that can produce unsafe wastewater.
“As we’ve said before, the protection of California’s groundwater resources — as well as public health — is paramount, particularly in this time of extreme drought,” said Steven Bohlen, head of oil, gas and geothermal resources for the California Department of Conservation. “Halting injection into these wells is a significant step toward that goal.”
According to Bohlen, the “produced water” created by the drilling process is different than the water used in fracking operations.
“They are two different things,” he said. “To be clear, in standard oil and gas operations, the producers skim off the oil and reinject the water back where it came from.”
“Out of an abundance of caution, we want to be sure that no injection is taking place into zones containing water that could, with treatment, be used for human activities,” Bohlen added.
Understandably so – wastewater from oil and gas drilling can contain dangerous chemicals including arsenic and benzene, in addition to the heavy metals and radioactive material. But the 12 wells closed down do not nearly scratch the surface.
According to Think Progress, California is the third-highest oil producing state after Texas and North Dakota, and is home to 50,000 injection wells that have been operating in various capacities for decades. In 2014, California produced 205.3 million barrels of oil. California also produced more than 3.3 billion barrels of water in 2014, which is “usually very brackish and unsuitable for human use,” according to the California Department of Conservation. That brackish water is typically injected back into the reservoir where it came from.
On Monday, the California Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had reviewed thousands of wastewater disposal and enhanced oil recovery wells for the last eight months, Think Progress reports. The review found more than 2,500 instances in which the state authorized oil field injections into protected water aquifers that could be used for drinking or irrigating crops. According to the agency, 2,100 of the wells that had been making the injections are still active. The state identified 176 of these wells as high priority concerns.
“These recent revelations make clear that the state simply cannot handle the vast amount of toxic wastewater that comes with these dangerous activities,” said Kassie Siegel, Director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, told ThinkProgress.
“Closing 12 wells doesn’t even scratch the surface of the threat to our water supply,” she said. “We also need an immediate halt to fracking and other dangerous oil development.”