Promised Reform of Dangerous Steam Injection Oil Drilling Never Happened

Friday, December 04, 2015

Steam injection is an increasingly popular way to drill for oil in California—it’s been likened to chemical-free fracking—despite the unfortunate incident in June 2011 when ground weakened by the process opened up and dropped Chevron supervisor David Taylor into a boiling cauldron of water and hydrogen sulfide.

State regulators responded to public concerns by promising quick action on reforms for an industry whose new drilling processes, including acidization, were largely unregulated. Steam injection, largely shielded from scrutiny by a loophole in regulations, would have its regulations tightened up and enforced properly.

That didn’t happen, according to the Los Angeles Times. Cyclic steam stimulation was exempted, in 2013, from the state’s first stab at writing regulations for fracking. State regulators told the Times they are at least a year away from revising the rules and the industry group that advises them has not completed its input yet.

More than half the oil wells in California use steam injection, also known as steam flooding. As California slowly pulls together data for the first time on drilling in the state it has become apparent that wells using new technology, toxic chemicals and other abrasive drilling techniques are endangering aquifers and causing other environmental problems.

But there is still not a systematic attempt to measure freshwater supplies statewide for contamination.     

According to the Times, DOGGR records show that 40,000 steam injection wells escape current oversight because of a conflict in regulations. Cyclic steaming wells can to be used to extract oil or as injection wells, allowing drillers to classify them as production wells not subject to injection regulation.

Some attempts to ramp up regulatory oversight since 2011 have been short-circuited. Months after the Chevron incident, Governor Brown fired acting-Department of Conservation Director Derek Chernow and the head of the state Division of Gas, Oil and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) for pissing off oil companies by refusing to grant expedited oil and gas drilling permits for steam injection wells without the proper environmental reviews.

The brief attempt by DOGGR to crack down on the oil industry ended when Brown’s replacements took over, returning to an empathetic relationship that has drawn criticism for years.

Former DOGGR program manager Michael Stettner explained to the Bakersfield Californian after the Chevron death, “Generally when something like this happens, (the new rules are) only going to be more stringent. And sometimes, it's been my experience that (regulators) go overboard. That's what I anticipate to happen.”

The overexuberance feared by Stettner was sufficiently contained to allow a report (pdf) by the state Senate in March of this year to note that “numerous oil and gas injection wells are improperly sited and present a risk of contamination to good quality groundwater used for drinking and agricultural irrigation purposes.”  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

What Happened to California Regulators’ Vows to Make Steam Injections Safer? (by Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times)

California Senators Focus on Oil Industry, Drinking Water (by Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press)

Chevron Pays $350 Fine after Oil Worker Boiled to Death (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Oil Industry Frets over Sinkhole Controversy (by John Cox, Bakersfield Californian)

Fired Oil Regulator Says Governor Ordered That He Ignore U.S. Water Law (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

California and Fracking (Center for Media and Democracy)

Ensuring Groundwater Protection: Is the Underground Injection Control Program Working? (California State Senate) (pdf)

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