Regulators in California ordered operators to shut down 12 wells injecting potentially toxic oil and gas wastewater into federally protected drinking water - bringing the total number of wells ordered to halt injection to 23. There are more than 2,500 wells in California currently permitted to inject oil and gas waste and other fluids into federally protected aquifers.
Image credit: Lance Larson. See my colleague Lance's blog for an interactive map showing where the wells are located and information about them.
Records show that some of those 12 wells had been injecting into high-quality drinking water since the late 1970s. Huge volumes of fluid have been injected into these wells since they were first permitted, ranging from just over 7 million gallons at the low end to 3.8 billion gallons at the high end - the equivalent of more than 5,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools of fluid.
What kind of fluid have oil and gas companies been injecting into California's aquifers? Disturbingly, very little information is available to answer that question. But what is known is worrying to say the least. The fluid most commonly injected in these wells is oil and gas wastewater, which can contain toxic metals, volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, and naturally occurring radioactive material.
The series of events that led to this mess are nearly as stunning as the problem itself. Last year, the Governor's Office requested that the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) perform an independent review of the program under which these wells are regulated, known as the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. The findings of that review were sent to the Governor's Office on Monday. It presents the clearest picture to date of a mind-boggling history of poor communication, inadequate record-keeping, inconsistent information, and general confusion among the agencies responsible for overseeing this program - the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), U.S. EPA Region 9, and U.S. EPA Headquarters. Shockingly, it also revealed that the state has known about this problem since 2011.
The state is still in the process of reviewing all 2,553 improper permits. They're prioritizing their review based on the type of injection well (disposal or enhanced oil recovery) and by the quality of the water into which those wells are injecting. The wells that have been shut down so far are disposal wells injecting into the cleanest drinking water - a group of just 176 wells. Regulators anticipate that reviewing just those 176 wells will take another three months. Reviewing the remaining 2,377 permits will take at least two more years.
In the meantime, oil and gas operators are free to continue injecting into these disputed wells. That would be unacceptable in any year, but as California suffers through the fourth year of the worst drought in more than a millennium, it's just plain irresponsible. NRDC, like many of our partners, is calling for all 2,553 wells to be shut down immediately and to remain shut down until full investigations of any water contamination are completed. The state and the oil and gas industry need to clean up their mess, and commit themselves to ensuring that something like this can never happen again.