California’s Petroleum Industry Responds to Misleading Los Angeles Times Editorial

NOTE: This is a guest post from Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, and Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association.

As the leaders of California’s two largest petroleum-industry trade associations, we feel it is important to have an open and informed conversation about energy development in our state.  This is especially important since more than 18 separate agencies regulate, permit, and inspect our operations, which can be very complex and not well understood by the public or media.

It is for this reason, we want to address a number of inaccuracies that appeared in a recent Los Angeles Times’ editorial entitled, “California needs to overhaul its protection of groundwater,” which focused on the process of produced water injection in the oil and gas development process.

In its opening paragraph, the editorial states:

“This process — a way of disposing of the contaminated water created during the drilling process – is done in conventional oil and gas drilling, and is even more common in fracking, which uses large amount of water to fracture rock and release oil. The concern is that the injection process can end up poisoning the aquifers that provide drinking water.”

This assertion is wrong.  Here are some facts that readers of the Times should know:

Wastewater is not “created.” The water reinjected during the disposal process is simply the water that was in the rock containing the oil and natural gas. The oil and gas are removed from the water and the water is reinjected back to where it came from cleaner than it was when it came out.

Wastewater injection is not “more common in fracking.”  Not true. Whether a well has been fractured or not has no bearing on whether produced water is reinjected, recycled for enhanced oil production, or treated and sold to agriculture for irrigation.

On average, a fractured well in California uses less than 150,000 gallons of water, and this is a one-time process in the life of a well.  Because of our state’s unique geology we only fracture about one-third of our new wells in a given year.

For perspective, in 2013 hydraulic fracturing used 323 acre-feet of water in California. Agriculture used 34 million acre-feet, and residential lawn care used 8.7 million acre-feet. Put another way, all of the hydraulic fracturing operations in California in one year use the same amount of water as California’s 1,000-plus golf courses use in half a day. And this doesn’t take into account the water that oil and gas development produces which is treated and used constructively to help fight the drought.

Furthermore, produced water can only be reinjected into geological zones where the water is not suitable for drinking. Most of the time the produced water is reinjected – again, cleaner than when it came out of the ground – right back into the same oil-bearing zone from which it came.

It’s also important for your readers to know that no contamination was found or alleged in Kern County as the editorial suggested.

DOGGR’s move to examine the injection process on 11 wells in Kern County was done, in its own words, out of “an abundance of caution” but did not stem from any contamination. Several of those 11 have since been deemed by DOGGR to be fully compliant and have been reinstated.

This is largely a paperwork problem stemming from a 100 year-old agency trying to digitalize its old records.  At the same time however, DOGGR’s regulatory oversight has increased greatly in recent years.  The Division has doubled its staff to review permits and inspect facilities (paid for 100% by fees on industry). In fact, DOGGR is in the final stages of approving new regulations for SB 4, the most sweeping regulations of fracking and well stimulation in the country and the industry has adjusted its operations to comply with the law – and all of the transparency that it provides.

We welcome new rules and regulations that make sense, but they should be based on facts, not misinformation. The most fundamental fact to bear in mind, as the regulatory process moves forward, is one that DOGGR has explicitly stated:

“In California, hydraulic fracturing has been used as a production stimulation method for more than 30 years with no reported damage to the environment.”


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