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Lawmakers grill state oil regulators on oversight failures

Lawmakers call oil regulating agency's practices corrupt, mismanaged, inept

On Tuesday, state lawmakers took their turn lambasting California's beleaguered oil and gas agency at a hearing in which senators called the agency's historic practices corrupt, inept and woefully mismanaged.

For two hours, legislators grilled the leaders of California's Department of Conservation, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board, seeking assurances that the state's dwindling water supplies are protected from toxic oilfield waste.

The hearing comes as officials from DOGGR deal with the aftermath of the admission that they for years inadvertently allowed oil companies to inject wastewater — from fracking and other production operations — with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers, a violation of federal law. 

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has called the state's errors "shocking" and said that California's oil field waste water injection program does not comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Agency officials have attributed the errors to chaotic record-keeping and antiquated data collection. And local water officials said that initial tests on nine drinking water wells found no benzene or other contaminants.

Senators on Tuesday unfurled a litany of the agency's failings and asked how officials there can be trusted to address the problems.

State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) called DOGGR's failings "endemic."

"There has been a serious imbalance between the role of regulating the oil and gas industry and the role of protecting the public," Jackson said.

Agency officials promised to do better and presented detailed plans to review the underground injection program.

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