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California Sets New Rules for Injection and Idle Wells

The California Department of Conservation (DOC) has proposed final regulations to better safeguard against drinking water contamination from oil and natural gas operations involving underground injection control (UIC) wells and abandoned idle wells.

The proposed rules, which were based on draft rules released last year by the DOC, will now undergo a 45-day public review process. The DOC touted the rules as being aimed at "modernizing and improving" regulations governing the use of water and steam in the production of oil and gas, along with the disposal of water generated during production.

DOC Director David Bunn called the development a "significant milestone" in California's efforts to modernize its oversight of the oil and gas industry. Public hearings have been scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13 in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, respectively.

State legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 requires the DOC's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to focus on environmental and public health protections for both UIC and idle wells. California has some 80,000 injection and 30,000 idle (plugged and sealed) wells. DOC officials stressed that the final regulations should strengthen the state's oversight of oil and gas production and continue to ensure that underground sources of drinking water are protected.

California regulators began looking into additional protections in early 2015, when allegations first surfaced that drinking water was being contaminated due to lax oversight of UIC wells and hydraulic fracturing. None of the charges have proven to be true, but state officials have been striving to increase their oversight ever since.

UIC wells cover 55,000 drill sites in the state, including wells that inject water or steam for enhanced oil recovery, which accounts for about 60% of the state's production.

DOGGR officials said key elements of the UIC regulations include:

  • Stronger testing requirements designed to detect leaks;
  • Increased data requirements to ensure potential risks are fully assessed;
  • Continuous well pressure monitoring;
  • Automatic shutting down of injections when there is a risk to safety or the environment;
  • Monitoring for seismic activity; and
  • Requirements to disclose chemical additives.

For idle wells, the new requirements similarly seek comprehensive testing, permanent sealing and long-term well management plans. They also call for increased funding to seal deserted wells through operator fees and criteria for data needed to prioritize wells for permanent sealing.

DOGGR head and state oil and gas supervisor Ken Harris said idle wells can degrade and pose a risk to underground sources of drinking water. "We want to reduce the risk of this occurring while also creating incentives for operators to clean up idle wells," Harris said.

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