State Sued over Oil Wastewater Rules Delay, While Blowing Deadline for Report on the Mess

Friday, May 15, 2015

At the end of a story published Thursday by the Los Angeles Times—about the state’s admission that it totally blew the April 30 deadline for identifying what oil companies do with the billions of gallons of water they pump out of and into the ground—the reporter correctly noted:

“California's oil and gas regulators have come under increased scrutiny for what some lawmakers say is a failure to protect the state's clean water from being tainted by oil field wastewater.”

That scrutiny includes two lawsuits filed in the last week by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity in response to new “emergency” regulations approved by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). The regulations were in response to revelations last year that up to 2,500 injection wells might be pumping wastewater without permits or with permits they shouldn’t have.

The state shut down the 23 most egregious wells, but environmentalists wanted them all closed until a proper assessment could be made.

That didn’t happen. The new rules pretty much allow business as usual until February 2017, according to a lawsuit (pdf) and a preliminary injunction request filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the environmental groups. They were published in April after just five days of public notice, due to their emergency nature.

They want the Alameda County Superior Court to block the new rules because, “Instead of responding to the true emergency and shutting down these unlawful injections, DOGGR has issued sham regulations to allow the ongoing and unlawful contamination of protected aquifers.”

The lawsuit alleges a lack of concern for the public welfare and too much concern for the industry it regulates: “DOGGR argues that the Emergency Regulation ‘will provide the level of certainty operators need in order to revise their business plans’ and will prevent ‘abrupt disruption of their operation’ that is otherwise ‘detrimental to the general welfare.’ ”

The lawsuit argues that the harm from curtailed injection-well pumping is to private companies, not the public, and therefore not a justification for an emergency order that skirts normal procedures. A hearing is scheduled for June 11.

Oil wastewater often has high levels of cancer-causing benzene, along with fracking fluid that can contain chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. California has around 50,000 injection wells, which take the enormous amounts of wastewater used to drill oil and gas wells and stick it back in the ground. State lawmakers required DOGGR to gather a broad range of information, including what’s in the water and where they’re injecting it.

After months of pondering the task, Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom wrote state Senator Fran Pavley that DOGGR would not be able to process the data in time because of “unforeseeable personnel and technical challenges.”

Pavley, the author of legislation requiring the report, told the Times the agency didn’t hint at a problem until the deadline passed. “The department's failure to comply with the law is another example of poor management and lax regulation of the oil and gas industry that has implications for California's economy and the public health,” she said. “The public—during a serious drought—needs to know where this water comes from and where it's going.”

The next quarterly report is due July 31.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Agency Misses Deadline on Reporting Oil-Industry Water Use (by Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times)

Preliminary Injunction Aims to End Unlawful Contamination of California’s Protected Water Sources from Oil Industry Injections (by Will Rostov, Earthjustice)

Aquifer-Polluting Oil Industry Injection Wells to be Closed, Maybe, Starting in Six Months (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club v. California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (Alameda County Superior Court) (pdf)

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