Letters to the Editor

Oil industry threatens aquifer in SLO County’s Price Canyon area

Oil field and production machinery in Price Canyon as seen from Price Canyon Road.
Oil field and production machinery in Price Canyon as seen from Price Canyon Road. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

It might be California’s most precious resource. So why are state regulators trying to give our underground water to the oil industry?

At stake is an aquifer in San Luis Obispo County’s Price Canyon area. State oil officials recently submitted an application urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exempt this underground water from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Those of us living near this aquifer are deeply concerned. If the EPA approves the state’s troubling proposal, the oil industry would get permission to dump oil waste fluid into the water via injection wells in the Arroyo Grande oil field.

That would be a huge gift to oil giant Freeport-McMoRan, which plans to drill hundreds of new wells — including injection wells — in the area.

Disturbingly, this “aquifer exemption application” from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources could be the first of dozens for underground water across the state — all to serve the oil industry.

So the EPA faces a momentous choice. Hard on the heels of its failure to protect the people of Flint, Mich., from contaminated water, the agency must decide the fate of underground water in California. For the sake of our thirsty state, federal officials must value our water supplies above oil company profits.

At a public hearing the past year, about 100 people turned out to express fears that oil pollution could contaminate our water supply wells; there are more than 100 water wells within a mile of where Freeport plans to drill.

It’s important to understand that oil wastewater is dirty, dangerous stuff. It commonly contains cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, according to testing by the state — and oil companies themselves — of well flowback fluid and wastewater from across California.

But such risks didn’t deter oil regulators, who went forward with submitting the exemption to the EPA in February. That recklessness is consistent with the history of the state oil division, which has a scandalous record of failing to protect Californians’ air and water.

Take the agency’s spectacular failure to prevent a massive methane leak from an L.A. gas-storage well. That Aliso Canyon gas leak — the largest in U.S. history — drove thousands from their homes. And it might have been prevented if state oil officials had demanded the well operator to replace a crucial subsurface safety valve.

Failures also are glaring with respect to water pollution. Oil regulators admitted last year to allowing the oil industry to drill thousands of injection wells into legally protected groundwater aquifers across the state, including the Arroyo Grande aquifer.

That dismal history provides important context for the oil officials’ claims about why they support exempting the Price Canyon-area aquifer from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

They argued that the formation is already polluted and sealed off from other water supplies.

Yet, hydrogeologist Matt Hagemann said officials have failed to provide data to support such sweeping assertions.

“The claim that boundary conditions create an impermeable hydraulic barrier that would preclude the intercommunication of drinking water aquifers with oil field activities is unsubstantiated by any physical tests or computer simulations,” Hagemann wrote in an analysis done for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Regulators also have failed to adequately map nearby water wells. And, shockingly, different maps shown to the public by the state actually show different aquifer boundaries.

In other words, officials can’t even map this aquifer consistently — let alone justify turning it into a garbage dump for oil waste.

The EPA may be our last hope: The decision could be made as soon as next month, and federal officials must reject this aquifer exemption application. California has struggled for years to escape a devastating drought. We can’t afford to sacrifice our dwindling water resources to the oil industry.

Natalie Risner lives in the Price Canyon area. Maya Golden-Krasner is an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.