Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, March 10, 2015

Contact: Patrick Sullivan, (415) 517-9364,

Oil Industry Injection Wells Routinely Fracture California Rock Formations

State’s Troubled Oil Agency Admits Allowing Illegal High-pressure Steam Injections
That Create Water Pollution Risk, Deadly Sink Hole Danger

SACRAMENTO— California’s troubled oil agency routinely approves high-pressure steam injections into oil wells that fracture rock formations, violating the law and increasing the risk of water pollution and deadly sinkhole accidents like a 2011 incident that killed a Kern County oil worker.

This illegal practice was revealed in a new document released by the California Senate ahead of this morning’s oversight hearing on state regulators’ failure to protect scores of aquifers from Monterey to Kern and Los Angeles counties from oil industry injections of toxic waste fluid (see interactive map).

The document says the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR allows cyclic steam injection that “routinely exceeds the fracture gradient of the formation” in violation of state regulations and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Cyclic steam injection is widespread in California oilfields.

“Gov. Brown’s oil regulators are rubberstamping high-pressure steam injections that can pollute our water and cause horrific accidents,” said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity. “This shows once again that state officials have ignored the law and haven’t protected California’s precious aquifers from toxic oil waste.”

Today’s Senate hearing — titled “Ensuring Groundwater Protection: Is the Underground Injection Control Program Working?” — also examines the oil division’s issuance of hundreds of illegal permits to inject toxic oil waste fluid directly into protected groundwater aquifers, including aquifers with water clean enough to drink.

Oil regulators admit they wrongfully issued as many as 490 permits for oil industry waste disposal wells that violated federal and state law. But they’ve only shut down 23 of the hundreds of wells that are currently and illegally injecting hazardous waste fluid directly into protected aquifers. Nearly 2,000 enhanced oil recovery wells are also operating illegally in protected aquifers.

State oil officials have also tried to downplay the risks of cancer-causing benzene in oil industry wastewater. But dangerous levels of benzene are fairly typical in produced water in California, according to a 1993 study by the oil division.

Other tests done by oil companies show high benzene levels in flowback fluid coming out of fracked wells in California. Those tests, mandated by a new fracking disclosure law and available online, found benzene at levels as high as 1,500 times the federal limits for drinking water.

These public documents also reveal that oil companies dumped this contaminated fracking flowback fluid down injection disposal wells like those operating in protected aquifers. 

“Fracking and other oil production techniques are producing huge volumes of toxic fluid that threatens California’s future,” Siegel said. “State regulators are letting oil companies do virtually whatever they want with this dangerous waste. If Gov. Brown doesn’t step in to halt fracking and illegal wastewater injection, Californians will bitterly regret the damage done to our water supply.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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