SAN FRANCISC — California’s top regulators on Tuesday acknowledged lax oversight by the state had allowed oil-and-gas industry contamination of protected water aquifers and other threats to public safety, and they pledged to intensify protection of water sources and public health.
“This is our chance to get it right,” John Laird, the state’s secretary of natural resources, told state senators in a scathing senate hearing that examined what regulators conceded were decades of improperly permitted injection by the oil industry into federally protected water aquifers, as well as state approval of what lawmakers and environmentalists said appeared to be illegal use of potentially dangerous high-pressure steam injection in oilfields in California, the country’s No. 3 oil-producing state.
Members of state Senate committees on environmental quality and natural resources — convened after critical state and federal reviews, and after news reports by The Associated Press and others — seized on Laird’s admission that state regulators had gotten out of balance when it came to serving the state’s oil and gas industry and protecting public health and resources.
The state’s oil and gas division had become “a flawed agency in many, many ways in terms of protecting the groundwater as it should be. The balance really has gone out of whack,” Democratic San Francisco Bay-area Sen. Lois Wolk said.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, agreed. “None of this really came to light until there were exposes in the media,” Jackson told state water and oil-and-gas regulators. California had a “serious imbalance between the role of the oil and gas industry and the role of protecting the public. This is an endemic problem.”
In a statement, state Sen. Fran Pavley, chairwoman of the senate’s natural resources committee, criticized the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
“During past budget cycles, plans were written and commitments were made to bring DOGGR into compliance with law and its own regulations,” said Pavley, D-Agoura Hills. “Now, recent news reports indicate little progress has been made ... DOGGR personnel continue to ignore the law and regulations. Here we are in the fourth year of a serious drought, and the actions of the oil and gas regulator are threatening the state’s precious groundwater supply.”
The state senators scheduled the hearing in the wake of critical reports by the U.S. and California environmental protection agencies from 2011 on. The federal and state federal environmental regulators found the state was in widespread violation of U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act laws meant to protect current and potential sources of drinking water from contamination by the oil and gas industry.
Between last summer and this month, the state shut down 23 oil-industry injection wells that it found state regulators had permitted to dump oil-industry wastewater into federally protected water aquifers.
Such improper injection had contaminated the affected federally protected drinking water aquifers, Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the state Water Resources Control Board, told the lawmakers. Testing has found no sign of the contaminated water reaching nearby water wells, regulators said.
State regulators in all have identified 2,500 oilfield-injection wells that the state had authorized to inject oilfield fluids into aquifers that were under federal protection. An Associated Press review found much of the improper permitting occurred since 2011, when federal environmental regulators already had put the state on notice regarding lax oversight.
Lawmakers also grilled state regulators on one intensive form of oil production in the state: injection of steam at high pressure to force oil from underground rock formations.
State oil and gas regulators have acknowledged routinely allowing oil and gas producers to inject steam underground at pressure so high that it cracks open underground rock formations, in violation of state and federal regulation, according to a state Senate report prepared for Tuesday’s joint hearing.
The state’s use of steam injections in oilfields came under scrutiny in June 2011, when a Chevron worker, Robert David Taylor, fell into a sinkhole of boiling fluid that opened suddenly in a Kern County oil field. Taylor boiled to death, state authorities found.
State lawmakers raised the issue of Taylor’s death Tuesday, and they asked Steve Bohlen, head of the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, if the high-pressure steam injection was indeed illegal.
Bohlen responded he was not familiar with the particulars of the regulations, but that oil extraction by high-pressure steam was now widespread in the state oil industry. “Our regulations are old. And they haven’t kept up with industry practice,” he said.