California Assembly caves to corporate polluters: Oil and Gas interests take priority over safe drinking water
Despite a crippling drought and a massive failure by the State to protect groundwater from oil and gas injection wells, Assembly Bill 356 (Das Williams) failed to pass its floor vote today, garnering only 28 votes of the 41 needed to pass the Assembly. The bill was granted reconsideration and can be brought up again next year. The failed vote will mean that oil companies can continue to inject toxic chemicals into the ground without monitoring for contamination in nearby aquifers used for drinking and irrigation. On Thursday, US EPA released an assessment that confirms that fracking and other oil and gas processes pose major threats to drinking water.
“I am deeply disappointed by the vote today and I am concerned that the oil and gas industry is being allowed to harm our coast, beaches and groundwater without any accountability," said Assembly Member Williams. "AB 356 is a commonsense measure to reform California’s Underground Injection Control Program and protect our groundwater. I am committed to continuing the fight to protect California and its groundwater from oil spills and oil and gas wastewater.”
Assembly Member Williams introduced AB 356 after California regulators revealed that they improperly permitted the injection of oil and gas waste and other toxic fluids into non-‐exempt aquifers, which contain water that is currently, or may in the future be used for drinking water. Over 2,000 illegal wells remain in operation; the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Regulation (DOGGR) has shut down just 23 injection wells since the problem was discovered in 2014. AB 356 would have required groundwater monitoring for injection wells and given the State Water Board, the state’s groundwater quality watchdog, input on decisions regarding which aquifers to exempt from protection.
Andrew Grinberg, oil and gas program manager for Clean Water Action said, “The state has neglected its groundwater long enough. AB 356 was a common sense bill intended to ensure that our state complies with long-‐standing federal laws – like the Safe Drinking Water Act. Instead the Assembly decided to let oil companies continue to operate without adequate safeguards for drinking water.”
The failed vote comes just one day after the California Senate passed a package of bills to address climate change and advance clean energy goals. With the climate package a top priority of Governor Brown and Senate leadership with broad support, the oil industry focused their opposition on three bills dealing with protecting groundwater from injection wells. Only one, SB 248 authored by Senator Pavley, passed the Senate. That bill will now move to the Assembly. SB 454 by Senator Ben Allen failed with only
17 of the necessary 21 votes.
Both disposal and enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells are regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) Underground Injection Control (UIC) Class II program. DOGGR received primacy to manage California's implementation of this program in 1983. Since then, both state and federal regulators have come under fire for mismanaging this program and failing to ensure that injection projects do not contaminate drinking water. In 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), issued a critique of DOGGR's implementation of the Class II program, citing numerous shortcomings including, insufficient expert staff for inspections, not enforcing the federal definition of drinking water, and inadequate geologic review during permitting. In 2014, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a critique of EPA, for failing to adequately oversee state programs to implement the UIC Class II program. Poor record keeping, rubber stamping of permit applications and understaffed and lax inspection protocols have contributed to the inadequacies of California's efforts to regulate injection wells. On June 3, 2015 Governor Brown and DOGGR were named in a legal complaint filed by Central Valley farmers alleging that they conspired with Kern County officials and oil companies to allow illegal injection into high quality aquifers.
“It’s pretty depressing that most Members of the Assembly put the interests of Big Oil ahead of California’s need to protect its groundwater,” Grinberg added. “Today’s vote was another indication of just how powerful corporate polluting interests are in Sacramento. At least the Senate took the reasonable approach and passed one bill to address the state’s failed UIC program.”