Clearing Up the Confusion about Water and Energy Development in California – Part II

Part I of this series reported the facts on water use related to energy development in California. In Part II, we will address issues of water safety with reference to recent regulatory developments and test results. We will also examine the safety record of hydraulic fracturing with regard to any potential for water contamination.

Water Safety


While testing has revealed no water contamination related to California’s Class II Underground Injection Control program, there has been some understandable confusion surrounding this issue. It is, after all, a somewhat technical matter involving definitional differences of “exempt” aquifers between federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state regulators at DOGGR.

This issue received lots of media attention, and activists seized on what they imagined was an opportunity to exploit public fears. In reality, however, this is a paperwork issue that is in the process of being resolved. (It is important to note here that injection wells are not hydraulically fractured. Both conventional and unconventional wells produce water that may be disposed of in injection wells.)

As Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association succinctly put it:

 “State regulators have successfully regulated injection of produced water from oil and gas operations for decades. To date, there has not been a single case where the state has allowed injected water to taint drinkable water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked the state to help it update the paperwork used to regulate the practice [of injection] and the state has developed a work plan to do so. Those are the facts.”

The good news is that scientists testing California water wells near injection wells that were deemed to have been improperly defined as “non-exempt” based on the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) have been quite clear that the water was not contaminated.

As the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) explained:

“[T]est results indicate that the injection wells have not degraded groundwater quality.” [emphasis added]

Headlines about this issue, however, seem calculated to generate fear of contamination and other safety concerns, rather than to share the news about actual test results. Here are a few recent examples.

 State let oil companies taint drinkable water in Central Valley, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 31

Is oil and gas drilling threatening California’s groundwater?, Sacramento Bee, March 9

Regulatory snafu in oil fields may be tainting water supplies, San Francisco Chronicle, March 6

Mercury News editorial: Taking a deeper look at safety of fracking, San Jose Mercury News, March 27 2015

It sounds scary, doesn’t it?

The Bakersfield Californian, it should be noted, accurately reported on the situation:

Well tests find no contamination from waste injections

Initial groundwater testing ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found no evidence Kern County water wells were contaminated by nearby oil field waste injection activity.”

The other articles, of course, did have to mention the actual test results – which, after all, answer the public’s most pressing question: is the water safe? The Los Angeles Times wrote:

 “Testing so far by the Water Board has revealed no contamination of water used for drinking or agricultural purposes from underground injection, and we intend to keep it that way,” said Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor. [emphasis added]

The San Jose Mercury News waited until the final paragraph of a 22-paragraph article to acknowledge:           

“Tests have yet to find any contaminated wells.” [emphasis added]

Following the release of SWRCB’s report – which remember, found no contamination – anti-industry activist group the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), put out a press release with the following headline:

 “Documents Reveal Billions of Gallons of Oil Industry Wastewater Illegally Injected Into Central California Aquifers.”

It is important to understand that not all aquifers are created equal. There are aquifers for drinking water and aquifers for water that is not meant to be consumed. CBD is technically correct that produced water has been injected into aquifers, but it tries to generate fear by implying that these were aquifers from which we get our drinking water. Not so.

State regulators have acknowledged their responsibility to bring the UIC program into compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), as there were discrepancies between what the state and federal governments defined as “exempt” aquifers – but it is important to understand that produced water is never injected into drinking water aquifers. Some journalists believed that water with a suitable low number — 3,000 – of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) is “drinkable,” but there is more than one criterion for what makes water drinkable. As Zierman wrote:

 “Water containing oil and gas is not “suitable for drinking” regardless of its TDS level.”

 So, contrary to headlines and activist propaganda, there is at present no reason to believe that oil and gas development – specifically underground injection miles below the surface – has compromised drinking water aquifers. None. Testing will, of course, continue and industry will continue using its best practices to insure that the safety record of its operations.


The CBD was behind another misinformation campaign that resulted in alarmist headlines but involved no water contamination.

In February, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with the headline:

 High levels of benzene found in fracking wastewater”

The Times acknowledged that it relied on data supplied by CBD, which is a “litigation factory” that exists, by its own admission, to frustrate the efforts not only of industry but of regulators as well. It is not a scientific organization and even boasts of preferring to hire “philosophers, linguists and poets” over scientists.

As noted previously, there is no “wastewater” in oil production, the water is “produced” and then put to a variety of beneficial uses or re-injected into the ground, thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers, often into the same formation where it previously existed for millions of years.

Though anti-industry activists have sought to use the benzene analysis to frighten Californians about the safety of their water, regulators and scientists have refuted the implication that the presence of benzene in produced water is related to fracking or that it poses any threat to drinking water.

Dr. Jane C.S. Long of the California Council on Science and Technology was hired by the state to conduct and independent, peer-reviewed scientific study on hydraulic fracturing in California. She told legislators that benzene is not used in hydraulic fracturing fluid in California. Benzene and other constituents in produced water are, in fact, naturally occurring. No threat to drinking water exists because this water is re-injected into aquifers that do not contain water fit for consumption.

Hydraulic fracturing

We have already demonstrated that oil and gas development is a net producer of water in the state’s most productive agricultural region and that water used in fracking accounts for .00069 percent (or .00062 percent) of the state’s water consumption.

 But even if fracking uses relatively little water, are there still risks for groundwater contamination linked to the practice?

On this issue, scientists and regulators have been clear: after more than 60 years and over 1.2 million hydraulic fracturing jobs there has not been a demonstrated case of drinking water contamination as a result of fracking in California (or elsewhere).

Here in California, 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.”

Numerous scientific studies have confirmed that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible risk to groundwater. There are two ways for hydraulic fracturing fluid to potentially impact human health: “upward migration” of fluid through rock formations into an aquifer, and “surface incidents” like spills or other fluid releases. A recent peer-reviewed report concluded:

 “[I]t is implausible that the fluids pumped into the target formation would migrate from the target formation through overlying bedrock to reach shallow aquifers…. there is no scientific basis for significant upward migration of HF fluid or brine from tight target formations in sedimentary basins.” [emphasis added]

The report also disputed that surface releases could make a meaningful impact on the safety of drinking water:

“Human health risks associated with potential surface spills of fluids containing HF constituents are expected to be insignificant with respect to both impacts to USDWs [underground sources of drinking water] and impacts to surface waters due to dilution mechanisms which are expected to reduce concentrations in potable aquifers and surface waters to levels below health-based drinking water concentrations in the event of surface spills.”

A list of leading scientists and their views on fracking safety can be found here and regulators from states with development share their views here. Even scientists who are members of the Obama Administration – which does not see eye-to-eye with industry on a host of issues – have repeatedly confirmed that fracking does not pose a threat to groundwater.


Water is properly a central issue for all Californians, particularly the safety and integrity of our drinking water supplies. As well, in the midst of an unprecedented drought, the amount of available water is also a paramount concern. All Californians, and all industries, have a role to play in responding to the drought — and this includes the state’s energy industry.

Instead of acting on deliberate misinformation from anti-industry activists who try to use our tragic drought for their own ideological purposes, California policymakers, industries, responsible NGOs and citizens should work together to fight the current “water war” based on an ethic of shared sacrifice and based on the best science. After all, water, like energy, is a resource we all rely on every day.



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