State regulators will hold a hearing Monday in San Luis Obispo on a proposal to more than triple allowable groundwater injection areas beneath the Price Canyon oil field.
An audit by the federal Environmental Protection Agency showed that state regulators had allowed 76 steam injection wells and 14 water disposal wells at the oil field to be drilled outside the currently allowable aquifer area. Of those, eight of the disposal wells are still in use.
Oil field owners Freeport McMoRan of Phoenix applied in October 2014 to the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources to expand the allowable injection well area, called an aquifer exemption area, to include these wells.
Currently, 249 acres are approved for injection. The proposed area is a total of 807 acres, an increase of 558 acres.
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The public hearing will be conducted from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott, 1605 Calle Joaquin Road, San Luis Obispo. The purpose of the hearing is to take public comment on the expansion, said Don Drysdale, a spokesman for the California Department of Conservation. “The effort is to achieve compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by expanding the aquifer exemption,” he said.
Representatives from Freeport McMoRan were not available for comment.
The 1,480-acre oil field, also called the Arroyo Grande oil field, is located between San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach at Price Canyon and Ormonde Roads. According to county planning documents, the oil field has operated for at least 100 years.
Currently, 165 wells are producing oil and 40 injector wells also are in use. The injector wells serve two purposes — to inject steam into the wells to thin the oil and make it easier to pump as well as disposing of wastewater in the wells.
In order for the federal EPA to approve the expansion, the state will have to make three findings. It must find that the aquifer is not a current drinking water source and will not become one because it contains oil; the injection of fluids will not prevent a beneficial use of the water in the aquifer; and the injected fluid will remain in the aquifer.
State regulators have tentatively concluded that the expansion meets these criteria and are recommending approval, said John McKenzie, the senior county planner for the oil field. “It appears that unless new technical information comes forward, they will recommend approval of the expanded aquifer exemption,” he said.
Information on the proposed expansion is available online here.
The environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, is planning to hold a protest of the exemption beginning at 3 p.m., an hour before the hearing will begin, at the Courtyard Marriott. They are asking that neighbors of the oil field and others join them.
“Basically, the idea is to turn this aquifer into a sacrifice zone for oil industry injection wells and wastewater disposal,” said Patrick Sullivan, a spokesman for the group.
The aquifer exemption expansion could also help accommodate a proposed addition of 450 new wells in the oil field. Currently, the oil field produces about 1,000 barrels of oil a day which is transported by seven truck trips a day to a Conoco Phillips pump station in Santa Maria.
If the planned 450 new wells are added, production would rise to 10,000 barrels a day. This level of production would require 64 tanker truck trips per day which would be scheduled for non-peak traffic hours.
In May 2013, the county hired Ventura-based Marine Research Specialists to prepare an environmental impact report for the proposed expansion. That company is in the final phases of preparing the report but no completion date has been announced, McKenzie said.
The controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, is not included in the proposed expansion. Fracking involves injecting water and chemicals under high pressure into oil-bearing deposits deep in the Earth in order to crack the rock and release oil and natural gas.