California oil and gas regulators acknowledge oversight failings

By Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press

Oil and gas regulators in and around Los Angeles routinely failed to carry out much of the oversight required to keep federally protected drinking-water aquifers from oilfield contamination, an internal review by those state regulators concluded Thursday.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Oil and gas regulators in and around Los Angeles routinely failed to carry out much of the oversight required to keep federally protected drinking-water aquifers from oil field contamination, an internal review by those state regulators concluded Thursday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's San Francisco office, in an email from spokesman Bill Keener, called the findings "significant and troubling."

The EPA will consider placing additional requirements on state oil and gas regulators to ensure California, which is the country's No. 3 oil-producing state, comes into compliance with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act and other state and federal standards, the EPA said.

Thursday's report by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources is the latest to highlight problems in state oversight of oilfield injection wells, which pump production fluid and waste into underground water reserves. In 2014, a department review mandated by the EPA identified 2,553 injection wells that California improperly permitted to discharge into aquifers that are federally protected as current or potential sources of drinking water.

The 2014 list included 11 in the greater Los Angeles area. Regulators said Thursday that those wells were outside the area studied in the latest report, or were found not to have threatened aquifers that are federally protected.

Thursday's report looked specifically at regulation of injection wells in much of Los Angeles County, where 3.5 million people live within a mile of an oil or gas well.

The internal review cited "systemic problems" with state enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other laws and regulations governing oilfield injection wells.

While the U.S. EPA requires annual inspections of the oilfield injection wells, for example, the internal review found the state has not inspected the majority of wells since 2007.

Additionally, state oil and gas regulators in the Los Angeles area in 2012 decided to start granting permits for oilfield injection wells without first carrying out required site reviews to see whether the operations would threaten protected drinking-water supplies underground.

David Bunn, the head of California's Department of Conservation, which includes the oil and gas division, on Thursday blamed what he described as chronic underfunding of the regulators.

In a court affidavit filed this summer, one of Bunn's predecessors, Derek Chernow, reported pressure from Gov. Jerry Brown and from oil companies to speed up permitting for oilfield operations.

"I can safely say we are not under that pressure," Bunn told reporters Thursday.

Also Thursday, Brown announced the appointment of Bakersfield, Calif., oilman Bill Bartling, a former manager at Chevron, Occidental and other oil-industry firms, as a district deputy over state oil regulation.

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