I thought I’d get out of the fire for a few minutes and into the oil patch.
(If you haven’t seen the blistering social media response to my story about two Kern County sheriff’s deputies breaking a suspect’s leg while taking him into custody, go check it out. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
So, back to the patch.
The great hue and cry over oil-field injection wells (which inject water that’s pumped up with oil back into underground formations) appears to have sputtered to a whimper.
About 80 percent of the 2,000 or so injection wells that had been facing a Feb. 15 shut-in deadline will be allowed to keep operating without fear of fines, according to an announcement last week by DOGGR, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
The Environmental Protection Agency has final say on the permits.
But after sifting through reams of geologic and water quality data on each injection well, DOGGR, with concurrence from the State Water Resources Control Board, felt the vast majority of wells under review would likely be OK’d by the EPA.
So it issued a provisional “go ahead.”
Only about 460 injection wells throughout the state are still under review and subject to the Feb. 15 deadline.
They are eligible for permits if operators can provide data to DOGGR showing the injections aren’t harmful to potential drinking water.
When this all started a few years ago, regulators were looking at more than 5,000 injection wells and anti-oil activists were jumping up and down demanding they be shut down.
The issue was whether the wells were injecting oil-field water into aquifers that contained drinking-quality water. Or water that had the potential of be cleaned to drinking standards.
If news releases were still sent on paper, the anti-oil crowd would have killed entire forests with the number of shrieking missives sent out claiming oil companies were practically poisoning our kitchen taps with their evil injection wells.
To quote from one of my favorite movies: Not hardly.
Most of the aquifers in question are in the same formations where the oil is being pumped, so they have hydrocarbons and massive amounts of salt taking them out of drinking water status.
The problem was that DOGGR drew aquifer boundaries on maps using 1970s information.
Oil companies expanded production following those formations, but the lines on the maps weren’t changed.
Fast-forward to a few years ago and it turned out DOGGR had been permitting injection wells into aquifers that hadn’t been officially exempted from the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The aquifers/formations were the same, but the data proving that hadn't been properly submitted and logged so the map lines could keep up with the field expansions.
That’s why oil companies said all along this was really a paperwork problem, not a pollution problem.
That’s not to say nothing has changed for oil producers.
Regulators did remove aquifers from exempted status (meaning no more oil-field water injections), but most producers had already found other ways to dispose of their water.
The remaining 460 injection wells still under review operate in 13 different aquifers (eight of which are in Kern County).
If exemptions for those aquifers are removed, it could have a serious effect on some, mostly smaller, producers, according to Rock Zierman, spokesman for the California Independent Petroleum Association.
Even if the exemptions are eventually granted, restarting after being shut down Feb. 15 won’t be a simple matter.
Each injection well takes water from a dozen or more oil wells. Without a way to dispose of water, those oil wells would have to shut down, too. And each of those oil wells is produced differently, from steam to water flooding, which is difficult to stop and start.
“It’s not as easy as turning a spigot,” Zierman said.