Viewpoints: Oil companies should conserve water, too

07/30/2014 12:00 AM

07/29/2014 2:26 PM

The signs of drought are everywhere. Lawns are brown, lakes and reservoirs are low, and hundreds of thousands of acres of croplands lie fallow, threatening farmworkers’ livelihoods.

Facing one of the worst droughts in California’s history, cities across the state have instituted mandatory water cutbacks. Communities are capturing and reusing runoff and recycling wastewater with renewed urgency. Farmers are being asked to accelerate the use of more efficient watering methods like drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation.

This crisis demands that we seize every opportunity to conserve freshwater. There is one practice that consumes large amounts of water in some of the most parched areas of the state and merits further attention: oil production.

Well operators have long used water to coax thicker oil from the ground. But they are increasingly using enhanced oil recovery techniques such as water flooding and steam injection to extend the lives of oil fields as easier to extract reserves are exhausted.

Unlike fracking, these methods are not intended to fracture underground shale formations. However, enhanced oil recovery consumed more than 80 billion gallons of water last year, more than 800 times the amount used for fracking and the equivalent amount used by about a half-million households.

Some operations may use water from the same canals that serve farms and 25 million California residents. In addition, much of this oil recovery takes place in areas where groundwater supplies are severely depleted. The impact on domestic and agricultural water supplies and local aquifers is not clear because oil companies are not required to disclose details on most of their water use.

Oil companies have an available alternative that would not require them to compete with farms and households. With each barrel of oil they extract, they also recover up to 10 or more barrels of water. This “produced water” adds up to more than 130 billion gallons per year.

Some companies are already reusing produced water in their oil fields, or even selling it for use in irrigation, but large volumes are simply poured into open ponds to evaporate. Without any reporting requirements or public disclosure, it is impossible to know how much water is being reused. The public has a right to know about the oil industry’s use of water.

A bill I authored that is now before the Legislature would take steps toward greater transparency and more prudent water use. Senate Bill 1281 would require oil well operators to report the amount and source of their water, and would require the use of produced water or other recycled water when possible.

During a drought emergency, such as the one declared by Gov. Jerry Brown in January, new oil and gas wells would be required to use recycled water. The bill would also limit the use of groundwater in new oil and gas wells.

As families and farmers across the state know, freshwater is a finite resource. Climate change is worsening the crisis. For more than a century, the California oil industry has shown its capacity to innovate. It can do so again. We must ensure that California’s thirst for oil does not unnecessarily burden our water supply.

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