California's Drinking Water is A Little Bit Safer from Oil Drilling Today

March 5th 2015

Alicia Lutes

Regulators in the state of California have requested the end of oil operations in 12 underground injection wells in order to protect potential high-quality groundwater. And though they swear this is being done "out of an abundance of caution," what's crazier is, perhaps, the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is creating these standards using ecological information and understanding from the 1980s.

Hey: better late than never, we guess?

Ten of the twelve oil outfits have voluntarily shut down operations, with another two receiving cease and desist orders from the state. According to State Oil and Gas Supervisor Dr. Steven Bohlen, the "testing of limited water supply wells by the Water Board has revealed no contamination of water used for drinking or agricultural purposes related to underground injection by the oil and gas industry." He added that they "intend to keep it that way" with these new efforts.

If you're a little less environmentally versed than the Environmental Protection Agency (and who would blame you), you may be wondering what the heck an "injection well" is and why oil companies are injecting anything into the ground at all. These wells are actually used for excess water. Yeah: more water — 3.3 billion barrels worth in 2014, in fact — is produced in the drilling process than oil. (TWIST!) This byproduct water is "usually very brackish and unsuitable for human use." (As it currently stands, they swear it's nothing like the hydraulic fracturing water that environmentalists say could poison people in areas of fracking across the country.) After being skimmed of its oil, this water is then re-injected into the reservoir for various reasons. But that's where the problems come in: As it turns out, a lot of the injection zones are either bigger than originally anticipated or have a level of overlap with zones from which clean drinking water originates, increasing the potential for contamination.

Per Bohlen: "Out of an abundance of caution, we want to be sure that no injection is taking place into zones containing water that could, with treatment, be used for human activities."

Thankfully, the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) — in coordination with the U.S. EPA — has "implemented systematic reviews of thousands of wastewater disposal and enhanced oil recovery wells to determine their proximity to water supply wells and the potential for contamination of any drinking water" after a request from Governor Brown. Given the fact that the EPA's current geologic standards and understandings come from rules created in the 1980s — when we didn't even realize how severe our impact was in regards to climate change we're going to go ahead and call this a very good instance of being better safe than sorry.