Stanford Study Finds New Groundwater Resources, Misleads about Oil and Gas

A new study from Stanford University claims to have discovered new, deeper sources of potential groundwater in drought-stricken California. If true, this is great news. However, the authors make the following claim:

“Deep groundwater aquifers provide an alternative source of fresh and saline water that can be useable with desalination and/or treatment. In the Central Valley alone, fresh groundwater volumes can be increased almost threefold, and useable groundwater volumes can be increased fourfold if we extend depths to 3,000 m. However, some of these deep groundwater resources are vulnerable to contamination from oil/gas and other human activities.” [emphasis added]

This demonstrates a misunderstanding of how the oil and gas industry in California is regulated and operates. Similar misunderstandings have hampered previous work by lead researchers Rob Jackson and Mary Kang.

The study’s authors have already faced criticism from their peers in the scientific community, as the Washington Post notes:

“But two other groundwater researchers contacted by the Post questioned aspects of the findings, or their framing, suggesting that the freshwater portion of the resource may already have been used, or that its existence would do little to change California’s water plight. The response suggests the new research could prove controversial among scientists trying to interpret what it means for a state that has battled over water, and its distribution, going back many decades.”

Some of the “controversy” is generated by the authors themselves as they attempt to use the specter of oil and gas-related contamination as a hook to generate interest in the study, even though they attempt – as activists frequently do – to confuse water that is reinjected into deep formations under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Underground Injection Control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and what most people reading about the study would regard as “drinking water.”

Here are some important facts to keep in mind when reading the Stanford study and evaluating its claims.

Fact #1: “Drinking water” and water produced and disposed of in oilfield operations are separate things

Sowing confusion about what constitutes “drinking water” in order to paint the oil and gas industry in a negative light is nothing new. In fact, the Stanford study comes just a few short months after another Jackson-led study that claimed that the industry is “allowed to inject toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water” in Pavillion, Wyo. due to so-called exemptions granted by the EPA. And the Pavillion study was released mere days after anti-energy activists including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Clean Water Action, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed a petition asking the EPA to stop allowing these “exemptions.”

The problem? The aquifers in questions are not used for drinking water, something the NRDC actually conceded in its petition to the EPA.

As EID has explained previously, activists and their academic enablers get away with this misleading claim because they count on the public not understanding that EPA’s definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW) refers to a reservoir that has certain characteristics that could potentially make it useable for drinking, even if, as in Pavillion, it is not used for that purpose.

As a frame of reference, when discussing the safety of water for consumption, regulators speak in terms of milligrams per liter (mg/L) of dissolved solids. Water considered “fresh” or “drinkable” contains less than 1,000 mg/L of dissolved solids. The state of California considers water potentially drinkable – with treatment – at less them 3,000 mg/L.

By contrast, the water protected by the UIC program of the SDWA contains around 10,000 mg/L. Again, this is not water that is drinkable or potentially drinkable. If new sources of treatable water are discovered to add to our supply of drinking water, then this is of course wonderful news for all Californians. This water will not, however, come from deep underground injection wells in oilfields which contain water that naturally resides deep underground comingled with hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) and other contaminants. As part of the production process, energy producers treat the water, removing the hydrocarbons, and reinject the water into the formation cleaner than when it was removed. So, deep — and expensive – wells that can bring this deep water to the surface have already been drilled by oil producers. This water is essentially stored in these oil reservoirs ad will be available in the future should it be economic to clean it to drinking water standards. As we will describe below, we are a long way from the innovation that would make this affordable.

It should be noted that the industry’s ability to treat water for beneficial use is remarkable. Because produced water naturally contains hydrocarbons but also other contaminants like boron, benzene, and arsenic, it is often recycled in oilfield operations or reinjected into the formation from which it came cleaner than when it came out. However, some produced water is clean enough that it can be treated and put to uses like wetland restoration or irrigation. In fact, the oil industry supplied Kern County farmers with more than 10 billion gallons of water last year as part of a successful agriculture-oil partnership going back more than 20 years, an amazing benefit, especially during a drought. (Of course, activists attack this valuable program, too.) And even though treating this water is more technologically challenging than treating, say, ocean water, there is no economical technology yet available to make water that contains 10,000 mg/L “drinkable.”

Fact #2: Oil and gas operations in California, including deep well injections, are heavily regulated.

Both the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the EPA strictly regulate the injection of oilfield-produced water. (For every barrel of oil that comes out of the ground in California, approximately 15 gallons of water comes with it).

First, the EPA, DOGGR and the State Water Board have to grant oil producers permission to reinject produced water into a specific formation. Producers must also get a permit prior to the operation. All three regulatory agencies have strict criteria to insure that there is no contamination of potential drinking water sources.

Fact #3: Underground injection wells are not a major risk of groundwater contamination.

The study notes:

“Jackson and Kang stress that just because a company has hydraulically fractured or used some other chemical treatment near an aquifer doesn’t mean that the water is ruined.”

No, it does not. In fact, California has ample research confirming just the opposite. As the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) explained about a recent study:

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

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

“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.”

Now, the Stanford study claims that this activity is occurring in water that wasn’t known to be potentially usable previously and it specifically references Kern County where much of the state’s oil production takes place. But, as Zierman and Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, note in response to an erroneous Los Angeles Times editorial about the classification of some Kern Country wells:

“[P]roduced 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.

In other words, this is something Californians are already monitoring and have had success with despite Kang’s claim that “no one is monitoring deep aquifers.”

Fact #4: Little is known about the practicality of safely and economically removing this water, or if existing estimates are accurate.

In addition to misunderstandings about what is already known about water quality in California and how the oil and gas industry is required to ensure that drinking water is not impacted, there was been another criticism of the Stanford study from the scientific community, namely that the water may not be economically or geographically viable – if it’s even all there at all.

From the Washington Post:

“The new study ‘improves the estimates for the total possible volume of groundwater, and how deep it is, and a little bit about its quality, primarily salinity,’ said Peter Gleick, a water resources expert and president of the Pacific Institute, who also edited the study for the journal. ‘But it doesn’t say anything about whether that stuff’s going to be economic to pump, or sustainably managed in the long run, or an important contributor to solving our water problems. Those are unresolved issues still.’” [emphasis added]

And that’s not all, as the article also points out:

“The new research prompted skeptical reactions from two researchers asked to comment by the Post.

A lot of the water that they’re talking about may actually be gone, when you think about the Central Valley, right now, where the average depth of the water table is already at 2,500 or 3,000 feet,” said Jay Famiglietti, a water expert with both NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine.

Famiglietti did agree about the deeper, saltier water sources, though, and praised the study for “highlighting that brackish groundwaters may eventually be an important water source.”

Just because they’ve seen that the depth of freshwater in this basin is deeper than people thought, does not mean that you can go pump more freshwater out of this system at all. It unequivocally does not mean that,” added Graham Fogg, a hydrogeologist with the University of California-Davis. Fogg did not dispute the new study’s overall numbers, so much as whether the finding would be useful in the context of trying to supply more water to the state.

The problem, Fogg said, is that there is a difference between the amount of water that may exist below the ground and the amount that can be extracted either safely — without major ecological impact — or sustainably.” [emphasis added]

With California’s significant faulting and complex geology, simply withdrawing water is not always an option. This is another reason the oil and gas industry often reinjects produced water back into the formation it came from – to maintain pressures to ensure stability in the formation. Removing that water completely could in some instances actually do more harm than good.


The discovery of a new potential water source in California is exciting news if the water proves to be viable. But Jackson and Kang go out of their way to posit concerns about the water’s “vulnerability” due to oil and gas operations – something they have done in the past – when this supposed vulnerability is belied by the strictest environmental regulations in the nation and decades of oil and gas development that has proven time and again to be protective of drinking water aquifers.

This is unfortunate, because California’s water situation is serious. It deserves better than demonizing an industry because it generates headlines. The oil and gas industry in California is well aware of the issues facing all Californians when it comes to water, as are the state agencies that thoroughly regulate its operations. The Kern County partnership between the oil and agriculture industries is a great example of Californians coming together to help solve problems.

We hope that Jackson and Kang have discovered viable and economical new sources of water for the Golden State. We also hope that, as their research progresses, they focus less on headline-generating press releases and focus on how we can work together – industry, environmentalists, activists and academics – to maintain California’s environmental leadership.

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