California Puts Oil Profits Ahead of Safe Drinking Water

California state agencies last week said they’ll put the interests of Big Oil and Gas before the interests of public health.

The California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources’ (DOGGR) and State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) plan will allow oil and gas companies to violate state regulations, miss agreed-upon deadlines, and continue putting precious drinking water at risk by injecting potentially toxic wastewater and other fluids into federally protected aquifers.

In early 2015, DOGGR admitted that decades of poor communication, inadequate record-keeping, and lax oversight resulted in as many as 5,625 injection wells being permitted to inject into underground source of drinking water (USDW) aquifers. When this problem first came to light we and our partners argued that the illegal injections should be halted immediately, but the state gave operators up to more than two full years to either apply for aquifer exemptions or stop injecting. There is no excuse for extending this already generous deadline further.

California regulators say that it’s OK to miss the deadline because they think the aquifer exemptions will eventually be approved. The problem, though, is that California regulators don’t have the authority to approve aquifer exemptions on their own. Under federal law, that responsibility lies with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), and it’s entirely possible that US EPA will disagree with the State and deny the exemptions. The State doesn’t have the power either to allow oil and gas companies to violate regulations and blow a deadline that the state and US EPA already agreed to.

To make matters worse, the oil industry is now suing the State, claiming that two years wasn’t enough time to apply for exemptions. But even if that highly doubtful claim were true, stopping the illegal injection wouldn’t prevent oil and gas companies from applying for exemptions and resuming injection in the future if those exemptions are approved. California must stop allowing the industry to pollute first and ask questions later.

When this problem was discovered two years ago, DOGGR and SWRCB developed a plan to bring these wells into compliance. That plan was submitted to and approved by US EPA—the agency with ultimate responsibility for overseeing the Underground Injection Control Program (UIC)—and key aspects of it were also codified in an emergency rulemaking.

Both the plan and the emergency regulations contain a series of deadlines by which injection must cease unless and until an aquifer exemption is approved by US EPA. The latest date for all improper injection to cease is February 15, 2017. To date, US EPA has not approved a single aquifer exemption. Yet, in their update to US EPA last week, DOGGR and SWRCB stated that they only plan to “enforce the February 15, 2017, deadline with respect to injection in aquifers in 23 fields (covering approximately 475 wells) and will allow injection to continue in aquifers in 29 fields (covering approximately 1,650 wells).”

This plan clearly violates both the approved agreement with US EPA and state regulations, which both state that after February 15 injection can only occur into aquifers with an exemption approved by US EPA. Both California and US EPA must put the protection of drinking water ahead of oil industry profits and strictly enforce the February 15 deadline to stop illegal injection into protected drinking water.

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