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Lawsuit Seeks to Halt California Wastewater Injections

A trio of environmental groups in California on Thursday filed a complaint in state Superior Court seeking to have declared illegal new state interim rules governing oil/gas operators' use of wastewater injection wells (see Daily GPI, April 24).

The lawsuit by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club -- two organizations that have accelerated their efforts to curb fossil fuel development and use (see Daily GPI, April 30) -- comes at a time when the state Department of Conservation's Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) is attempting to hammer out final rules on underground injection control (UIC) by the oil/gas industry.

Earthjustice's filing contends that the state interim rules "allow oil companies to continue injecting wastewater and other fluids into protected aquifers until February 2017," alleging that is "in violation of state and federal law," along with taking place in the midst of California's persistent drought.

DOGGR Oil/Gas Supervisor Steve Bohlen said he could not comment on pending litigation, but “as we’ve said before, the protection of California’s groundwater resources -- as well as public health -- is paramount, particularly in this time of extreme drought."

Bohlen contends that both the state and the U.S. EPA are "moving aggressively and quickly" to test all wells that risk harming sources of water for drinking and agriculture. "We have shut down 23 wells and will continue to do so immediately when there is a risk." He said that so far testing of water supply wells by the state Water Board has revealed no contamination of water used for "drinking or agricultural purposes related to underground injection by the oil and gas industry."

Implemented on an accelerated basis as "emergency" rules, the interim regulations were meant by DOGGR to accommodate the industry, according to the environmental groups' court filing in Alameda County in the East San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, the groups' are alleging that potential drinking water supplies are being threatened.

"Oil regulators issued emergency regulations to try to dodge obligations to protect California's water from illegal contamination by oil waste," the groups' attorneys said.

With stepped-up activity by both state lawmakers and environmental groups related to water and oil/gas operations (see Shale Daily, May 5), industry officials, such as the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), contend that there is a concerted effort ongoing to shut down oil/gas development in the state.

WSPA spokesperson Tupper Hull told NGI’s Shale Daily earlier in the month that a current proposal in the state Senate (SB 248) would impose "vague, extensive new requirements" on the DOGGR-regulated UIC program for injection wells. "It is one of several bills proposed by environmental groups that are trying to shut down production in California," Hull said.

Reinforcing his point, an opinion page column in the Los Angeles Times last Tuesday featured an essay by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a global grassroots climate change campaign, criticizing California's governor for continuing to support hydraulic fracturing and oil production in the state. McKibben called this a "serious blind spot" for the otherwise climate change-aggressive Brown.

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