How Much Water Does The California Oil Industry Actually Use?

oil spill pipeMike Gaworecki, DeSmogBlog
Waking Times

When California Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history, he notably excluded the agriculture and oil industries from the conservation efforts, a decision that was heavily criticized.

The oil industry, for its part, insists it is a responsible user of water. The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry lobbying group, for instance, wrote that “Oil companies are doing their part to conserve, recycle and reduce the water they use to produce oil and refine petroleum products.”

Some perspective is certainly needed here: the amount of water used to produce oil in California is, in fact, dwarfed by the amount used for agriculture. But the thing is, the state can’t make any fully informed decisions about whether or not to include oil development in water cuts because no one knows exactly how much water the California oil industry is using in the first place. That all changes on April 30, however.

Last September, Governor Brown signed into law SB 1281, which requires companies to make quarterly reports to state regulators at the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) detailing the source and volume of water — whether fresh, treated, or recycled — used during oil development processes, including extreme oil extraction methods like fracking, acidization and steam injection. The first set of data required to be reported to DOGGR under SB 1281 is due at the end of the month.


Required reporting on water usage is an important first step in devising an effective water conservation plan for drought-wracked California, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, tells DeSmogBlog.

“Without good data, we can’t have good policy,” Gleick says. “And it’s long overdue that the oil industry be transparent about water use and water quality. So I’m looking forward to more transparency.”

In an LA Times op-ed last month, Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA, wrote that California only has one year of water left in its reservoirs and that groundwater levels are at an all-time low. In fact, so much groundwater has been pumped by California farmers that the land is literally starting to sink in some parts of the state.

While the amount of water used by the California oil industry is small compared to the amount used for agriculture, Gleick says it should be part of the discussion about how to address the state’s looming water crisis. “We certainly need to look at how much water is required and used by the oil industry in California, especially in a drought,” he says.

That being said, the bigger issue with water use by the California oil industry is on the other end, when the produced water and other fluids from enhanced oil recovery techniques like fracking have to be disposed of. “We really need to shine a spotlight on what I think are the even larger threats of groundwater contamination, and water quality problems posed by produced water and wastewater,” Gleick tells DeSmogBlog. “I think those are the really big threats.”

California is embroiled in an ongoing controversy over 2,500 oil industry injection wells found to have been improperly permitted by DOGGR to operate in groundwater aquifers that should have been protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act. DOGGR has also allowed wastewater to be stored in open, unlined pits that have been shown to leach contaminants into surrounding land and groundwater — some of the pits are operating with no permit whatsoever, others with expired permits.

Wells in California cough up a vast amount of water along with oil — some 3.1 billion barrels of water came up with the 200 million barrels of oil California drillers produced last year. Much of that produced water was reinjected into the wells as part of extreme oil recovery techniques like acidization and steam injection. About 831 million barrels were injected into disposal wells.

While the industry treats and reuses much of the water used for well stimulation, it also uses an unknown quantity of fresh water. This could be one of the biggest revelations in the forthcoming data the oil industry is now required to report to California regulators.

Activists with Californians Against Fracking have already made an attempt to estimate the amount of fresh water used for fracking, cyclic steam injection and acidizing, and arrived at 2.14 million gallons of fresh water used every day for just those three methods.

But according to Food & Water Watch’s Adam Scow, who calculated that estimate together with Hollin Kretzmann at the Center for Biological Diversity, that number might be way too low. For one thing, the oil industry itself recently announced that it used 70 million gallons of water for fracking last year, far more than what Scow and Kretzmann had based their figure on.

If you factor in other well stimulation techniques and all qualities of water, Scow says, you get a much larger number than 2.14 million gallons a day. Per DOGGR data, for instance, “For 2013, the amounts of water injected in cyclic steam wells, steam flood wells and water flood wells are about 168 million barrels, 374 million barrels and 1.42 billion barrels, respectively,” Scow told DeSmogBlog. That adds up to over 224.5 million barrels a day, or 82 billion barrels of water in 2013, more than 10.5 million acre-feet — still far less than the 30 million acre-feet agriculture uses in a year, but a significant amount of water all the same.

That water was of mixed quality, of course, not all of it ready to drink or be used for agriculture. But according to Peter Gleick, with greater knowledge of just how much water the oil industry is actually using and what kind of water it’s using, we could be making more-informed decisions as to whether or not there are better ways to use that water.

“We can produce any quality of water from any source, if we’re willing to spend the money, or willing to require the industry to spend the money,” Gleick says. “But we’ve not been willing to impose that requirement. Most of that stuff is reinjected, and that raises the threat of groundwater contamination.”

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