Water regulator confirms that benzene is not a threat to drinking water

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A recent Los Angeles Times article claims that average levels of benzene (a natural constituent of crude oil) in “hundreds” of wells in California are on average “700 times higher than federal standards allow” and that “[t]he presence of benzene in fracking waste water is raising alarm over potential public health dangers amid admissions by state oil and gas regulators that California for years inadvertently allowed companies to inject fracking flowback water into protected aquifers containing drinking water.”

However, regulators and scientists at a recent California oversight hearing refuted this article, stating that the Los Angeles Times was “conflating” two unrelated issues: fracking and produced water reinjection. California state regulators and a scientist hired by California to conduct a peer-reviewed scientific report of fracking confirmed that benzene is not a part of the fracking fluid used by California operators, and that benzene is not “created” by the oil production process. Instead, benzene naturally occurs in the brackish water that exists along with oil and gas. Significantly, the regulators and scientists stated that because produced water is reinjected into aquifers that do not contain water suitable for human consumption, no threat to drinking water exists.

Similarly, a recent San Francisco Chronicle article claims that California is letting “oil companies taint drinkable water in Central Valley.” However, this article does not cite a single incident. The California State Water Resources Control Board and the Division of Oil and Gas recently conducted a review of all injection wells in California and identified only eleven wells installed near sources of potential drinking water. These California state agencies shut down those wells in an abundance of caution and ordered tests to see if any of the injected fluid had migrated to those water supply wells. The tests found that this injected fluid had not migrated to the wells, and the California State Water Resources Control Board stated “[t]hus far, the test results indicate that the injection wells have not degraded groundwater quality in the tested water supply wells.”

California’s two largest petroleum industry trade associations – Western States Petroleum Association and California Independent Petroleum Association – have responded to these claims concerning the contamination of groundwater, as they note that state regulators have successfully regulated injection of produced water from oil and gas operations for decades and that to date, there has not been a single case where California has allowed injected water to taint drinkable water. These trade associations point out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has simply asked California to help it update the paperwork used to regulate the practice and California has developed such a work plan. Specifically, the trade associations state that this issue is largely a paperwork issue of a 100 year-old agency trying to digitize its old records.

These trade associations also highlight that California’s oil and gas industry uses thousands of fully permitted injection wells and that the water reinjected is simply the water that was naturally in the rock and comingled with the oil and natural gas. The trade associations further state that the oil and gas are removed from the water and the water is reinjected back from where it came, cleaner than it was when it was initially removed, and that California drinking water aquifers have never been in danger from either hydraulic fracturing or reinjection of produced water.

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