December 31, 2016 marked a deadline for oilfield operators to comply with the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources’ (“DOGGR”) Aquifer Exemption and Compliance Schedule Regulations.  Operators were required to either cease injection of oilfield wastewater or obtain an aquifer exemption to continue injecting such wastewater.  This deadline was applicable to 11 aquifers that were historically treated as “exempt” aquifers, but have recently undergone review by DOGGR due to compliance issues with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”).

For any underground injection project approved by the Division [DOGGR] for injection into one of the 11 aquifers listed in subdivision (b)(1), injection shall cease by December 31, 2016, unless and until the U.S[.] Environmental Protection Agency, subsequent to April 20, 2015, determines that the aquifer or the portion of the aquifer where injection is occurring meets the criteria for aquifer exemption.

Cal. Code Regs. tit. 14, § 1779.1(b)

The December 31, 2016 deadline is one of several deadlines in DOGGR’s “wind-down schedule” which provides for the “phased elimination of new and existing injection into aquifers that have not been approved as exempt by the US EPA by February 15, 2017.”

In order for an operator to continue injecting oilfield wastewater into one of the 11 aquifers after December 31, 2016, the operator was required to obtain an aquifer exemption from DOGGR and the State Water Resources Control Board.  Generally, injection of wastewater into aquifers is prohibited in order to ensure the protection of groundwater resources.  An exempt aquifer is a well for which protection under the SDWA has been waived by the Underground Injection Control Program.  This means that the aquifer is not a source of drinking water due to high total dissolved solids content or other exemption criteria.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) must grant final approval of aquifer exemption applications.  To date, U.S. EPA Region 9 has not approved any applications, although four are pending.

A spokesperson for DOGGR stated that most operators in the region are already in compliance with the December 31 deadline and have stopped injecting into aquifers that have not received an exemption.  According to Kern Citizens for Energy, if the aquifer exemption applications are not approved by February 15, 2017, this could shut-down the production of over 105,000 barrels of oil per day, which is over 25% of the state’s oil production.