On Tuesday, March 3, twelve underground injection control (“UIC”) wells in California’s Central Valley, specifically in Kern County, were shut down in order to protect subsurface drinking water from potential contamination.  These shut-ins occurred just one day after a letter from Matthew Rodriquez, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, to the Governor was published, summarizing a review of the state’s UIC program.  (CalEPA Letter, March 2, 2015.)  “Where the risk of contamination is unacceptable, the State has ordered and will continue to order those wells be shut in.”  (Id. at p. 1.)

Some of the wells shut down on Tuesday are Class II UICs, classified as such by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) because they are used to dispose of wastewater produced during hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  The other wells are used for oil and gas production.  Operators of ten of the twelve wells stopped production voluntarily, while the operations at the other two wells were halted in compliance with a cease-and-desist order.  There are over 50,000 injection wells and 90,000 active or idle production wells in the State of California, according to DOGGR’s estimates.

These injection well shut-ins follow a letter to USEPA from the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (“DOGGR”) addressing noncompliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).  The SDWA restricts injection by Class II wells into non-exempt aquifers because non-exempt aquifers are those that may be a source of drinking water or a source of water for public works.  As of February 2015, state agencies have identified about 2,100 active wastewater disposal wells injecting into non-exempt aquifers.  California EPA states that the noncompliance is due in part to conflicting agency documentation as to whether 11 aquifers were exempt.  (See CalEPA Letter, at p. 1.)

The California Legislature has also taken steps to obtain additional compliance measures for the SDWA by proposing Assembly Bill 356 which would require additional groundwater monitoring by oil and gas operators to further protect underground drinking water sources from potential contamination.  Steven Bohlen, Supervisor of DOGGR, reports that there has been no evidence of water contamination to date.

By Mike Mills (michael.mills@stoel.com) and Shannon Morrissey.  Ms. Morrissey is a Law Clerk with Stoel Rives LLP and is not currently licensed to practice law in California