Injecting wastewater into California oil wells imperils drinking water

Keith Nakatani
Keith Nakatani

The oil and gas industry has reigned supreme in California ever since the late 1800s, when holes poked in the ground produced gushers. These days, its millions of dollars lavished on elected officials dominate Sacramento, killing common-sense legislation to safeguard our communities. Meanwhile, the state has performed poorly when it comes to protecting the environment and public health from oil and gas pollution.

Groundwater is a critical public resource. It accounts for up to 65 percent of the state’s water supply in drought years, and many communities are increasingly dependent on it for drinking water. Yet, at least since 1983, the oil industry has been allowed to inject billions of gallons of toxic wastewater and other fluids from more than 2,500 oil wells directly into aquifers that were mandated to be protected by federal law.

Why the mandate? The state was not minding the store.

Now, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources intends to double down on its disastrous track record and ignore its own regulations by allowing continued injection into more than 1,650 oil wells. Oil wells in aquifers that have not received an exemption from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are supposed to have been ordered to stop injection.

Aquifers are mandated to be protected by federal law. Injection into oil wells was mandated to be stopped by Feb. 15. The Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources is mandated to protect public health and the environment. Nowhere is there a state mandate that oil industry profits are to be ensured. Yet, the agency’s intended course of action protects the oil industry while sacrificing potential drinking water for the people of California.

In 2011, the U.S. EPA sharply criticized the state agency for mismanaging environmental reviews, keeping poor records and ignoring federal law, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. The aquifer locations and where pollutants were being injected were often unknown. Maps were sketchy, with hand-drawn boundaries. Characterization of the waste was vague, often simply called “salt water.” Despite this, permits were approved.

When the state agency’s mismanagement became known, it was a problem too big to be ignored. The governor fired and replaced top management. There has been some improvement. For example, the agency has forced oil companies to stop injecting into 475 wells, but it seems that old habits die hard.

The state is making determinations on a case-by-case basis to allow continued injections to wells located in aquifers, which ignores the cumulative impacts of its decisions. It is not known how much pollution has occurred, or how much more drinking water will be sacrificed.

Moreover, the criteria to make such determinations are outdated and flawed. They do not account for increasing drought-caused water scarcities resulting in lower-quality groundwater used for drinking, improved water treatment and pumping methods, and they allow for aquifer boundaries that are not justified by geologic analysis, among other factors.

California and the EPA should finally prioritize people’s drinking water needs over the bottom line of the oil industry by stopping the injection of wastewater in these 1,650 oil wells.

Keith Nakatani is the California oil and gas program manager for Clean Water Action. He can be contacted at