Water Supplies Soaked Up By Oil Industry in California

oil field photo

Photo by CGP Grey via Flickr Creative Commons

Extracting and refining oil is a water-costly process. California doesn't have much water to spare, yet it is pouring billions of gallons of this invaluable substance into its oil business. Right now, oil companies in Kern county use as much as 8 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced. Oil companies consumed 83% of the district's water allocation last year. Is this really the wisest use of a resource that, in so many ways, is far more precious than oil? Cleantechnica reports on new data from High Country News, stating that California -- an ever more drought-prone place -- is allowing oil companies to suck up the vast majority of water allocations in an area, and then return the polluted wastewater to unlined ponds.

According to High Country News, the wastewater from the oil fields threatens agriculture as well, since it puts polluted water back into the groundwater system:

From the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, Aera [Energy] dumped more than 2.4 billion barrels (or just over 100 billion gallons) of wastewater -- known in the industry as "produced water" -- from its North Belridge oilfield into those unlined ponds, [farmer Fred] Starrh says. The impact became apparent beginning in 1999, when Starrh dug several wells to augment the irrigation water he gets from the California Aqueduct. He mixed the groundwater with aqueduct water, applied it to a cotton field beside the berms -- and the plants wilted. Eventually, the well water killed almond trees, Starrh says; he points out a few that look like gray skeletons.

Not only is the oil industry using up valuable water, but it isn't cleaning the water before releasing it into the environment, causing two-fold damage. However, even though the fields are old, Kern county still produces about 8% of the nation's oil supply. For an oil-dependent nation, that's enough of an output to place protecting the water supply, even in overburdened California, at the bottom of a steep hill to climb.

Even pushing oil companies to clean the water they use is a tough battle -- while Chevron claims it recycles 90% of its water, it refuses to state exactly how it achieves that rate. Recycling water is more expensive than disposing of it, so trusting that an oil company is doing the right thing with its wastewater would be naive. Still, even environmental advocates are timid:

Even the local Sierra Club chapter hesitates to delve too deeply into the affairs of the petroleum industry. Lorraine Unger, treasurer and spokeswoman for the group's Kern-Kaweah Chapter, lives in Bakersfield, in an area known as "The Bluff," which has a panoramic view of the Kern River oilfield. Many members of her Sierra Club chapter work for oil companies, and Chevron, she says, is "not so bad, as far as oil companies go."

Unger knows a fair amount about produced water. "They used to run it right through the agricultural ditches," she recalls. "I can see it all from my backyard." But she says her chapter is not terribly concerned about the practice. After all, there are plenty of other local issues to worry about -- air pollution, sprawl, and the poaching of black bears in the Sierra foothills.

"Besides, even if I was concerned about the water, oil is just too big and powerful around here to go after," Unger says. "It puts food on people's tables."

Oil companies might help pay for food, but it certainly isn't doing anything to help grow the food, as Starrh's experience shows. Contaminating water supplies is a surefire way to guarantee there won't be food on the table in the future.

With that kind of weak stance even from environmental groups that should be addressing issues like polluted water supplies, it's no wonder California is in a water crisis, and looking heavily toward desalination plants along coastlines to help bolster supplies.

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