OpinionEditorial
Editorial

California needs to overhaul its protection of groundwater

EditorialsOpinionEnvironmental ScienceU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyPetroleum IndustryEnergy ResourcesEnvironmental Politics
Contaminated wastewater may have entered potential groundwater supplies

There are many environmentally worrisome aspects of oil and gas production, and one is the injection of wastewater back into the ground. 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 amounts 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.

Now, California has ordered oil and gas companies to stop injecting wastewater from their operations into 10 wells in the Bakersfield area, and is looking at about 100 more wells to see whether they should be closed too. It's unknown how many if any of these wells involved fracking operations. But the state's very lack of knowledge shows that it is a long way from the point where it should allow any large-scale expansion of fracking.

Decades ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified wells where water could be injected without poisoning potentially potable water. In 1981, it transferred the main responsibility for overseeing those wells to the state.

But in 2011, the EPA commissioned a study that found the state was doing an inadequate job. It wasn't monitoring nearly enough wells, and it wasn't inspecting the rest often or thoroughly enough. Some of the responsibility rests with the EPA, which released confusing information over the years about which wells were off limits to wastewater injection. The state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources believes that many of the wells now under review were legally off-limits to wastewater injection under the EPA rules, but that the oil companies may have been unaware of that. As a result, the division reported this month, contaminated wastewater may have entered potential groundwater supplies.

It's deeply disturbing that the state's inadequate oversight, coupled with what might have been confusing information from the EPA, has been allowing this over the course of years or even decades. But the current drought makes the issue particularly critical. The state is searching for new sources of water, including aquifers that might have been inaccessible in the past, or whose water was previously considered unsuitable for drinking but can now be purified using new technology.

There's a final irony: The division became aware of this problem only because of SB 4, a 2013 law that required some regulation of fracking in California — and also ordered a review of existing disposal wells. What it showed is that the state needs to overhaul its protection of groundwater.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EditorialsOpinionEnvironmental ScienceU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyPetroleum IndustryEnergy ResourcesEnvironmental Politics
  • The invisible high price of your little bottle of water
    The invisible high price of your little bottle of water

    Bottled water is usually a waste of money and, beyond that, an environmental mess. American buy 50 billion bottles of water each year, and recycle less than one-fourth of those bottles. It’s a tremendous source of landfill waste, but worse, 17 million barrels of oil are used each year...

  • Metro shouldn't play the name game
    Metro shouldn't play the name game

    How should Los Angeles say “thanks” to long-serving politicians who have done the people's business through good times and bad? When a fruit basket just isn't enough, the honorarium of choice for L.A. County supervisors and other local elected officials has been to have...

  • FCC has no business regulating the name of a football team
    FCC has no business regulating the name of a football team

    The Federal Communications Commission has been petitioned by an activist lawyer to effectively regulate the word “redskins” off the air. While this page has argued that the Washington Redskins football team should adopt a new name — the current one is racist — it...

  • Clear, thoughtful rules are needed for recordings by LAPD
    Clear, thoughtful rules are needed for recordings by LAPD

    The Los Angeles police sergeant who caused a controversy when he detained “Django Unchained” actress Daniele Watts in response to a 911 call last month has now publicly defended his decision to turn over an audio recording he made of the incident to the celebrity news site TMZ,...

  • Why the rule of law requires the bite of punishment
    Why the rule of law requires the bite of punishment

    Like all humans, judges are susceptible to fads. Anger management became a popular feature of American probationary sentences in the 1980s. A few years ago it was teen courts, then drug courts. The new fad is something called “evidence-based sentencing,” and it is both a...

  • Is feminism's current moment all slogan and no change?
    Is feminism's current moment all slogan and no change?

    Like the cicada, which lies dormant for 13 or 17 years and then suddenly makes a cacophonous comeback, feminism is having a moment. It's announcing itself on magazine covers, dominating discussions on culture blogs and, in one case, making itself known in huge, lighted letters spelling...

  • Can Spain and Catalonia's marriage be saved? Let the Catalans vote
    Can Spain and Catalonia's marriage be saved? Let the Catalans vote

    Catalonia's drive to break away from Spain hit a roadblock this week. Spain's Constitutional Court on Monday agreed to hear Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's appeal contesting Catalonia's plan for a Nov. 9 referendum on independence and suspended the regional vote....

  • For NFL to change, it's up to us to confront the sport's moral hazards
    For NFL to change, it's up to us to confront the sport's moral hazards

    In August I pledged in these pages to stop following football because of my misgivings about the game’s corruptions. Almost immediately, those corruptions exploded into public view as never before. Disturbing images and descriptions of off-the-field violence committed by star players,...

Comments
Loading