LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Environmentalists sued state agencies Wednesday to halt oil well injections into a federally protected aquifer near California’s Central Coast.
California oil and gas regulators failed to assess environmental consequences before forwarding a so-called aquifer exemption to federal officials for final approval, the Center for Biological Diversity said in the lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.
The Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources in February signed off on granting the exemption to Freeport-McMoRan Oil &Gas that would allow the oil company to inject steam and oil production wastewater into an aquifer beneath rolling hills that are also home to vineyards and homes a few miles outside Pismo Beach.
The exemption is the first the state has supported since regulators acknowledged lax oversight had allowed thousands of wells to pump oilfield fluids into protected aquifers. The wells inject steam and acid to loosen oil deposits or dispose of massive amounts of briny fluid and other waste, including chemicals, that comes out of oil production wells.
Attorney Maya Golden-Krasner, who filed the suit, disputes the state’s finding that the injections wouldn’t pollute drinking water and wants a thorough assessment conducted of potential environmental impact. About 100 wells within a mile of the oil field provide irrigation and drinking water and many residents are concerned about chemicals getting into their water.
“We’re concerned if this flies through, the state is going to end up sacrificing dozens of aquifers and the state’s groundwater without analyzing the consequences,” Golden-Krasner said.
The state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have come under fire from environmental groups and internally for failing to protect underground drinking water from oilfield contamination. The state has said it is committed to either shutting down the wells or approving exemptions for them.
Department of Conservation spokesman Donald Drysdale would not comment on pending litigation, but said the state is expediting efforts to get in compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Under the water-protection act, exemptions can only be granted if an aquifer is not used for drinking water or could not be used in the future.
In approving the exemption, the state said the aquifer beneath the oil field is not a current or future water source because it produces hydrocarbons. Further, it said fluids injected were not likely to migrate beyond the aquifer.
Golden-Krasner said the analysis was inadequate and that regulators had essentially rubber-stamped what oil company experts found. She said she is concerned because the approval didn’t examine the impact on the aquifer from more than 300 new wells the company plans to drill to increase production.
An oil company representative said the suit appeared to lack any legal or factual foundation and represented a misunderstanding of the California Environmental Quality Act, which it said does not apply to interagency submissions such as the exemption petition.
“The Center for Biological Diversity has a well-established pattern and practice of filing meritless lawsuits simply to harass project proponents and to advance their openly stated goal of ending all oil production in the state of California,” spokesman Eric Kinneberg said in a statement. “Today’s petition appears to be nothing more than a continuation of this strategy.”
This story has been corrected to show the name of the company is Freeport-McMoRan Oil &Gas, not Freeport-McMoRan Inc.