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State says it needs more time to meet injection deadline, plans to pressure oil producers

south belridge1 (copy)

This is a view of oil production in Kern County's South Belridge Oil Field, one of the most productive in California.

State regulators responding to a federal ultimatum have indicated they might not be able to come into full compliance with oilfield injection rules before a deadline imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of the need for detailed reviews that the oil industry says are unnecessary.

Senior officials with California's Department of Conservation and the State Water Resources Control Board told the EPA in a letter Oct. 15 that they expect to have the reviews finished before their deadline of Sept. 30 of next year. But because that's not the end of the process, the state's response could run the risk that the federal government will take away California's authority over injection work.

In a twist, the California officials wrote that once they complete the technical reviews, the state will require oilfield operators to take action "within an aggressive timeframe." They added that any who fall behind the accelerated schedule will have their operations shut down by the state.

The letter was a high-stakes response to the U.S. EPA's warning Sept. 16 that the state has already taken too long — more than six years — trying to bring California's Class II Underground Injection Control program into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Tomás Torres, director of the EPA's water division, had threatened to strip California of its regulatory authority in such matters, pointing to one instance in which the state appeared to be dragging its heels before sending paperwork as part of an application that could exempt an aquifer from the SDWA that had been used for wastewater injections.

The state's letter, signed by Department of Conservation Director David Shabazian and the executive director of the water board, Eileen Sobeck, emphasized that the technical reviews holding up California's federal compliance are necessary to prove there are no potential conduits through which industry wastewater injections might migrate and contaminate overlying aquifers that contain drinking water.

"This analysis will be performed and any identified threats to overlying aquifers will be addressed before submitting these packages to U.S. EPA for review," the letter states.

CEO Rock Zierman of the California Independent Petroleum Association trade group said by email the so-called conduit analyses are not required for aquifer exemptions under the SDWA, though the state does require them when oilfield operators apply later on for injection permits.

The water board only started requiring conduit analyses less than a year ago, he noted, and since then the state hasn't provided operators with adequate information on the scope of such studies, a list of requirements and how the studies will be reviewed by the state.

"So, they've made it impossible for operators to comply or move things along because there are no instructions," Zierman wrote.

He added that last month's letter from the state concedes California has not yet developed the scope of the conduit analyses. "But when they finally determine that scope, they are going to put the onus on the operators" to do any required remediation work that arises "by September 30, 2022 or the state will try and shut down these wells."

Shabazian's and Sobeck's letter said they appreciated that the EPA's correspondence made reference to the state's "significant progress" in processing 21 of 30 aquifer exemption proposals that have come forward since the federal government put California on notice in 2012 that its UIC program was not meeting federal standards.

Of the nine applications outstanding, three do not require conduit analyses, the state officials said. Their letter said one of those three has been sent to the EPA for review and the other two will be filed prior to the federal government's Sept. 30 deadline.