Capitol Alert

California oil regulator cites ‘serious concerns’ on data collection

This Thursday March 6, 2014 photo shows the setting sun behind pumpjacks operating at the Inglewood oil fields in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles.
This Thursday March 6, 2014 photo shows the setting sun behind pumpjacks operating at the Inglewood oil fields in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles. AP

Pressed by lawmakers about failing to shield protected aquifers from waste generated during oil drilling, California’s state regulator overseeing the oil industry conceded Wednesday that his agency is falling short.

“We do have a serious data management problem,” Dr. Steve Bohlen, appointed last year to head California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, said during a state Senate hearing. “Our problems are on the table, and I am not hiding them. The division is not hiding them.”

The recent revelation that oil companies were allowed to inject wastewater into federally protected aquifers has spurred alarm from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and put state regulators on the defensive. State regulators sent a letter to the U.S. EPA pledging to get back into compliance and setting up a timeline to shut down some wells.

Bohlen made his remarks at a hearing about California’s landmark law regulating hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a cocktail of water and chemicals is blasted underground. Passed in 2013, Senate Bill 4 imposes new rules around reporting and permitting new wells, notifying neighbors, releasing information about which chemicals are used and conducting water quality inspections.

The law does not cover injecting wastewater underground, though it does require well operators to submit a waste disposal plan as a condition of getting a permit. It also requires the state to develop a groundwater monitoring program, which an official described as a work in progress.

“In the next few years we’ll have a much better understanding of the groundwater (impacts)” of hydraulic fracturing, Jonathan Bishop of the California State Water Resources Control Board testified.

In the past, some lawmakers have criticized state regulators for being overly lax with the oil industry. Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom’s predecessor, Derek Chernow, was fired after resisting pressure from Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to speed up permitting of new injection drilling projects.

Bishop said state water regulators are bound to a tight timeline as they work to craft groundwater rules required by the new hydraulic fracturing law.

“We have a lot of pressure on us to move forward fast,” Bishop testified. “We also have a lot of pressure on us to not make mistakes.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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