Activist Groups Aim to Protect Local Aquifers from Oil & Gas Operations

Activist Groups Aim to Protect Local Aquifers from Oil & Gas Operations title=
Activist Groups Aim to Protect Local Aquifers from Oil & Gas Operations
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Source: Environmental Defense Center

[Tuesday], groups submitted a letter to California’s key resource agencies responsible for preserving and managing the State’s natural resources to urge the agencies to protect drinking water and safeguard public health from the pending request for exemption from federal safe drinking water rules in the Cat Canyon Oil Field in Santa Barbara County. The groups include the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”), Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”), Clean Water Action, Friends of the Earth, and other community and environmental groups.  Oil and gas operators in Cat Canyon seek this “aquifer exemption” to dispose millions of gallons of toxic wastewater underground into water-bearing zones or to inject steam into these areas as part of a dirty and dangerous production technique known as “enhanced oil recovery.”  The groups are asking the State to withdraw the application for the Cat Canyon Aquifer Exemption or at least wait until the U.S. Geological Survey completes its study of the groundwater quality in the Field, which is expected to begin this year.

“The letter submitted [Tuesday] by environmental and community organizations sends a clear message to the State that our public officials have a responsibility to protect communities and the environment from the impacts of exploiting fossil fuel resources,” said Tara Messing, Staff Attorney at EDC. “The groups are unified in opposing this exemption proposal in Cat Canyon because they agree that Californians cannot afford to put our limited water supplies at risk.”

In recent years, California’s coastal regions have experienced a notable increase of new exemptions from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act protections, threatening public health and risking degradation of drinking water supplies.  The influx of these requests from the fossil fuel industry began after the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) discovered that operators of over 5,500 injection wells in seventy-five oil fields throughout the State were illegally injecting into non-exempt aquifers, including areas under the Cat Canyon Oil Field.  Rather than stopping the illicit injections, DOGGR worked with operators to catalyze a massive expansion of aquifer exemptions throughout the State. 

Injection operations can have devastating consequences on the environment, as demonstrated by the recent spill of over 1,000,000 gallons of crude oil and water into a dry streambed in the Cymric Oil Field, Kern County.  There is so much at risk if the Cat Canyon Aquifer Exemption is approved.  According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”), parts of the Cat Canyon Oil Field are already ranked in the 100th percentile for groundwater threats, heightening concerns about the degradation of groundwater if this Aquifer Exemption is approved.  Communities around Cat Canyon, such as Sisquoc and Los Alamos, rely entirely on groundwater for drinking water.

Approval of the Aquifer Exemption could also significantly increase the extent and intensity of risky oil and gas operations in the Field.  EDC, on behalf of ourselves, Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, and Santa Barbara County Action Network (“SBCAN”), is opposing three proposals to drill and operate over 700 new wells in the Cat Canyon Oil Field, the approval of which would triple the County’s current onshore oil production.  The three projects would utilize dangerous steam injection practices to loosen the heavy, viscous oil in the Field.  If approved these projects will cause irreparable, unmitigated damage to numerous acres of important sensitive habitat and native vegetation, endangered wildlife, our water quality, and public health.

The Cat Canyon Aquifer Exemption application is currently before DOGGR and the SWRCB, and has yet to be submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”).  The time is now for the State to step in to prevent another rubber-stamped approval of an aquifer exemption in California, and to protect our precious groundwater that communities depend on for drinking and agricultural production.

The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection. EDC’s focus areas include protection of the Santa Barbara Channel, ensuring clean water, preserving open space and wildlife, and addressing climate and energy.

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