The oil industry's "good neighbor" story of supplying wastewater for use in California's drought-stricken agricultural fields has come under increased scrutiny from state lawmakers and water quality activists who are seeking more safeguards on the quality of the supplies being diverted.

Despite gaining kudos from state and local officials over the past 20 years for a program that has grown in scope, the industry practice, led by companies such as Chevron Corp. and California Resources Corp. (see Shale Daily, April 24), is being scrutinized as perhaps contaminating crops and the food supply chain in the nation's most populous state.

In April, the regional water authority in the state's expansive agriculture and oil/gas-rich central valley notified energy producers of new testing requirements for the diverted wastewater supplies. There are increased calls for added testing of both the water supplies and the crops produced from them.

California's industry regulator, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), last year reported statistics showing the state's total oil production was nearly 200 million bbl in 2013 and that oil production also produced more than 3 billion barrels of water (see Shale DailySept. 26, 2014). Chevron currently supplies 21 million gallons of wastewater daily, supplying about 10% of the agriculture in Kern County in the heart of the central valley.

Sen. Fran Pavley, who authored the state's new hydraulic fracturing rules (SB 4), is sponsoring legislation (SB 248) that would expand the testing of water produced from oil operations. It would empower DOGGR to enforce new requirements. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) opposes the bill.

“It’s one of several bills sponsored by environmental groups that are trying to shut down production in California by using the UIC [underground injection control] program as an excuse,” said WSPA Tupper Hull. “DOGGR and the State Water Board have developed a comprehensive plan to bring the UIC firmly into compliance with federal drinking water protections and that plan has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plan incorporates a number of expanded regulatory measures that amounts to a fairly complete overhaul of the program.”

Pavley’s bill would require DOGGR to collect and post online additional data provided by the operators, according to a DOGGR spokesperson, who noted that the division does not have authority over oil-produced water once it is diverted to agriculture.

“DOGGR is charged with regulating produced water and flowback that goes back into a disposal well,” said the spokesperson, noting that regional water boards oversee the application of produced water to farming. For DOGGR, “testing would be triggered from self-reported data indicating a concern, or as a result of current analysis on targeted [re-injection] wells.”

The state's Department of Conservation and its DOGGR unit have not taken a position on SB 3227, he said.

Water Defense, a water quality activist group founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, has hired a scientist to take samples from a canal carrying Chevron water supplies to nearby farms and has discovered compounds potentially toxic to humans, including acetone and methylene chloride, according to a front-page report in Sunday's Los Angeles Times.    

Chevron and the central valley water district are planning to hire a third party to do more testing, but the oil giant has maintained that it does not use acetone or methylene chloride in its oil extraction process, according to the Times' report.