What the Frack! Oil and Gas Companies Aren’t Reporting Water Use

Friday, September 04, 2015

California has historically done a miserable job of tracking, much less regulating, how oil and gas companies use water—and resulting toxic wastewater—whether storing it in unlined pits, injecting it back into the ground or repurposing it for crop irrigation.

Democratic state Senator Fran Pavley’s SB 1281, passed a year ago, was meant to rectify that by requiring oil companies to report all that stuff on a quarterly basis beginning this year. It has not gone smoothly.

The California Department of Conservation announced on Thursday that it was cracking down on 30 oil and gas operators who failed to file any reports, even half-assed ones, and was fining each of them the maximum amount allowed under law—$4,500.

That’s probably not a big financial hit for most of the operators, but penalties will escalate if quarterly deadlines continue to be ignored.

“We have made it clear that, given severe drought conditions in the state, knowledge of how water is used and treated is vital,” the department said in a press release (pdf), and still the companies were totally uncooperative. But they weren’t the only companies failing to fulfill the law’s requirements.

The deadline for compliance was April 30, but the department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) asked for, and received, an extension from incredulous lawmakers to June 1. Only 166 operators out of an expected 433 filed on time. Hundreds received notices of violation (pdf), but 39 were withdrawn for various reasons. Eventually, 146 more operators filed and 104 remained at risk of being cited and penalized.

In the end, 329 quarterly reports were received. But 87 of them were missing data, in the wrong format or otherwise screwed up. They were returned, leaving 242 good ones, which constituted “59 percent of the produced water, and 41 percent of the injected water during the first quarter.”

It’s not clear how the department determined the percentages without water data from all the drilling sites. But it is estimated that California's oil fields, which produce far more water than oil, pumped out more than 205 million barrels of oil last year while using 3.3 billion barrels of water.

Oil and gas companies have been disposing of toxic wastewater for decades without much oversight. But the introduction in recent years of new technology has spurred the use of dangerous water-intensive procedures, like hydraulic fracturing (fracking), by a revitalized state oil and gas industry.

The standardized form that oil and gas operators were asked to fill out for the state requires around 250 pieces of data regarding “the source, the treatment and ultimate disposition of the water.” The data, such as it is, has not been validated by the state.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Fines Oil Companies for Failing to Report Water Use Data (by Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of Unlined Oil Wastewater Pits in Kern County Have No Permits (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

California Department of Conservation Fines 30 Operators over Failure to Report Water Use (California Department of Conservation) (pdf)

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