Letter Urges Oil & Gas Wastewater Well Shut-Ins due to Risk of Groundwater Contamination; Regulators Stick to Rulemaking

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[co-author: Shannon Morrissey - Law Clerk]

On March 20, Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) wrote a letter to Governor Jerry Brown requesting that his administration immediately shut down approximately 2,500 underground injection wells.  The letter was signed by seven other legislators and urges that these wells must be closed until “all appropriate aquifer exemptions have been issued by the US EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and investigations of groundwater contamination from these wells are complete.”

Senator Pavley’s letter comes in response to reports that California is out of compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) underground injection control (“UIC”) program.  The SDWA prohibits injection of Class II wells into aquifers that are potential drinking water sources, called non-exempt aquifers.  Class II wells are those that dispose of waste water from oil and gas production.  The California Department of Conservation (“DOC”) is already addressing this matter, and has issued a notice of proposed emergency rulemaking to eliminate injection into non-exempt aquifers on April 2.

On March 3, twelve injection wells were shut-in due to a high risk of drinking water contamination, but state regulators also have confirmed that there are no reported instances of drinking water contamination from oil and gas disposal wells.  Matthew Rodriguez, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency stated, “Where the risk of contamination is unacceptable, the State has ordered and will continue to order those wells be shut in.”  However, since March 3, the state has not required any additional wells be shut-in, signifying that there is currently not a high risk of contamination from any of the 2,500 underground injection wells that are the subject of the legislators’ letter to the Governor.

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