The agencies tasked with protecting our drinking water have failed us, and it's time for us to step up as concerned citizens. The Arroyo Grande aquifer, which lies beneath the Arroyo Grande oilfield, is at risk. It's a current and future source of drinking water that is protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), but the state and federal agencies responsible for ensuring that protection have failed to do so. Today, the aquifer is being simultaneously polluted and depleted by the oil field.
The EPA defines an aquifer as "an underground body of rock that contains or can transmit groundwater." Here's what's happening to ours. The oil in Arroyo Grande is so thick that steam has to be injected into the wells to warm it until it's thin enough to be pumped. The steam loosens the oil, but it also changes the pressure underground and releases groundwater. Only 5 percent of what the wells pull up is oil—the rest is a mixture of groundwater and condensed steam that is euphemistically called "produced water," when "polluted water" would be a better descriptor. The 1.2 million gallons of water pumped up each day is saltier than seawater and contains benzene (a carcinogen), ethyl benzene, selenium, xylene, toluene, lead, chromium, dispersed oil, and unknown proprietary chemicals. This is enough produced water to fill Laguna Lake to capacity every four months. About 40 percent of the water is treated in a reverse osmosis plant and released into Pismo Creek. Another 45 percent is run through a water softener and then re-injected into the ground for more steaming. The final 15 percent is a concentrated toxic waste that includes the waste products from reverse osmosis. It gets pumped into Class II wastewater injection wells in the aquifer.
In early 2015, an Associated Press report revealed that California's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) had granted more than 2,500 illegal permits for Class II injection wells in federally protected aquifers. Class II wells can be used for steam injection, toxic wastewater disposal, or underground oil storage. The permits were illegal because they did not meet the EPA's criteria for exemptions of protected aquifers. Twelve of the illegal wells were at the Arroyo Grande oilfield. As of this month, 11 of the wells are still operating, pumping wastewater into the aquifer. Nearly half of the illegal permits had been approved in Gov. Brown's first term, which isn't surprising, given that in late 2011, Brown fired the state's top two oil and gas regulators after oil companies had complained their environmental reviews were "blocking oil exploration in Kern County." Less than six months later, Brown bragged that the firings had increased drilling permits by 18 percent.
In late 2015, Freeport-McMoRan, then the owner of Arroyo Grande oilfield, submitted an aquifer exemption proposal to DOGGR. They wanted to expand the portion of the Arroyo Grande aquifer into which wastewater could be injected. Freeport wanted to drill another 481 wells in the oilfield, which had 260 active wells at the time. Expanding the injection areas of the aquifer was necessary because new wells would increase the amount of wastewater that had to be dealt with.
Freeport-McMoRan claimed that the Arroyo Grande aquifer was not a present or future source of drinking water, and that it was geologically isolated from surrounding groundwater sources. In early 2016, DOGGR approved the proposal and forwarded it to the EPA to make a final decision. The agency did this despite the fact that there were 24 known water wells in the Edna Member, the portion of the aquifer being proposed for exemption, and 105 water wells within a mile of the oilfield. The EPA has yet to make a decision, but they have approved three similar exemptions in California under the Trump administration. If the EPA approves the Arroyo Grande aquifer exemption, SLO County will move forward in reviewing Freeport's expansion proposal, which the current owner, Sentinel Peaks Resources, inherited.
You might think that only those who live near the oilfield are threatened by its expansion, but the Arroyo Grande fault could prove you wrong. The proposed expansion would nearly triple the amount of active wells and bring the daily produced water to almost 2 million gallons, and the reverse osmosis plant is already near capacity. Injection-induced earthquakes have happened in neighboring Kern County and throughout Oklahoma—both of which have a preponderance of drilling and wastewater injection. An earthquake in Arroyo Grande could enable the wastewater that has already been injected to migrate and contaminate the Santa Maria basin, which provides water for the Five Cities.
In the face of the failure of the EPA, Gov. Brown, and DOGGR to protect the aquifer, local citizens have stepped up. The Coalition to Protect SLO County is sponsoring a ballot initiative to ban oil well expansion, fracking, and acidizing in our county. The latter two are not happening yet but would have serious impacts on groundwater. The coalition has until May 2 to gather the 13,000 signatures required to put a measure on the ballot for November. The next time you see someone outside the grocery store with a clipboard collecting signatures, be sure to add your name. Δ
Katie Ferrari is filling in for this week's Rhetoric and Reason. Send comments to email@example.com write a letter for publication and email it to