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Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.EXEMPTION PROCESS IGNORED, SAYS D.C. ENVIRO GROUP

A new report by an East Coast environmental study group concludes that the California agency responsible for monitoring oil production has routinely overlooked serious wastewater injection issues in the oil fields of Monterey and Fresno counties.

The Environmental Action Center, based in Washington, D.C., says its yearlong study found that the state Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), has ignored the industry practice of injecting too much wastewater under too much pressure into underground rock formations, which can cause contaminated wastewater to migrate toward underground sources of drinking water. See the study here.

While it cites no examples of contaminated drinking or irrigation water, the center has petitioned the DOGGR to better enforce existing regulations and to reject pending requests for exemptions that would allow dangerous practices to continue, particularly in the Lombardi and Aurignac sands in Monterey County.

The study was performed by David Reed and Hannah Fish of the EAC, a non-profit group that focuses on water pollution issues nationally. Based on the cited source materials, it appears that much of their work consisted of a review of state and federal regulatory records pertaining to the Central California oil fields. Monterey County’s production is centered in San Ardo while Fresno County’s industry is mostly in the Coalinga area.

It was not immediately clear whether the report’s release last week was timed to influence the fate of Measure Z, the Nov. 8 ballot measure that would ban fracking in Monterey County and force the oil industry to adopt more sophisticated methods of treating the wastewater that results from their steam-injection process.

The wastewater issue has become a focus of the Measure Z campaign. While the initial thrust of the ballot measure is to ban fracking in Monterey County, the oil industry’s opposition campaign correctly argues that there has been no fracking here but that the measure would impose costly new regulations on an industry that is already heavily regulated. The EAC study questions the adequacy of the existing regulations.

The report’s executive summary says, “When operators inject too much wastewater, at pressures that exceed the pressures in the injection zone, vertical fractures can form in the rock formations, which results in contaminated oil and gas wastewater migrating out of the injection zone. If allowed to migrate far enough upwards, the wastewater could potentially reach more shallow underground sources of drinking water.

“In injection zones such as the Lombardi and Aurignac sands in Monterey County, which are now being considered for an aquifer exemption, overpressure problems have existed since the beginning of oil and gas wastewater disposal in the area – at least since the 1980’s.”

The report says the state agency has routinely overlooked wastewater issues in violation of state and federal rules.

“There are many significant environmental impacts resulting from oil and gas exploration and production, however, one of the most significant is the disposal of wastewater produced during oil and gas operations. Oil and gas operations use millions of gallons of water each year, and industry operators are faced with decisions regarding how to dispose of that wastewater.

“One of the most economical methods of oil and gas wastewater disposal – injecting the wastewater back into underground injection wells – is also one of the most problematic. In theory, oil and gas operators inject the wastewater into underground rock formations, known by their characteristics as suitable ‘geologic zones.’ Different geologic zones are suited for wastewater disposal based on their depth, permeability, and confinement characteristics. Additionally, geologic zones used for wastewater disposal in theory are not considered as being potential sources of drinking water, because of chemical characteristics of the water already present in the formation.”

The Monterey County oil producers say their wastewater is injected to underground basins that are harmlessly separated from potable water by impermeable rock layers.

The report continues, “An aquifer, or an underground source of drinking water, needs to be exempted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency or equivalent state agency to be used as a geologic zone for underground wastewater disposal. Generally, deep underground aquifers are not suitable for drinking water, while more shallow aquifers are.” The Monterey County and Fresno County operations have not been granted the proper exemptions and, therefore, are operating illegally, the report contends.

“DOGGR must enforce existing legal requirements that apply to well operators. DOGGR must also use reasoned discretion and shut down injection projects where appropriate.”

The report says the DOGGR is currently in the process of reviewing and updating its guidelines for disposal wells pursuant to state legislation and a federally mandated overhaul of its permitting program.

“Historically, DOGGR failed to require oil and gas operators to perform the legally required geologic, hydrologic and engineering studies prior to approving wastewater disposal,” the report says, noting that the process of reviewing approximately 255 drilling sites in its coastal district would be a dauntingly time-consuming task.

One of the issues oil producers must address is the amount of pressure used to pump wastewater back into the ground. Many of the Central California wells, particularly in Monterey County’s San Ardo field, have been flagged by the state agency for “unacceptably high hydrostatic pressure.”

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Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.Update: The Monterey County Weekly has now included a mention of the following article in Monday’s online version of Squid Fry. This is good.

Update No. 2: KSBW on Tuesday interviewed Assessor Steve Vagnini and reported his finding that the oil industry’s tax bill this year would be about $5 million and would range in upcoming years between $2 million and $5 million, so the Partisan takes back the jab it sent in TV’s direction. 

SUBTRACT $3 MILLION FROM $8 MILLION AND WHAT DO YOU GET? NOTHING

It takes some effort to get me riled up these days. I used to be rather easily irritated but I’m older and calmer now. I get more sleep. But the local press corps has managed to push my buttons, simply by ignoring me.

It isn’t a big deal, except that it kind of is. In a Partisan post a week ago, I wrote about how the oil industry keeps advertising about how Measure Z, the anti-fracking measure on the November ballot, will shut down the oil industry and wipe out $8 million in annual property taxes to various Monterey County government agencies.

However, I dutifully reported, it turns out the low price of oil these days means that the industry’s property tax bill this year is actually less than $5 million, according to Monterey County Assessor Steve Vagnini, whose office is in charge of determining that amount. It will go up when oil prices go back up. Maybe next year. Maybe later.

Now Vagnini’s “south of $5 million” pronouncement is not some assertion, some exaggeration by the environmentalist types who created Measure Z. This is from the office that actually sets the figures. It’s based on real numbers, not anyone’s speculation.

The truth is that Measure Z will not rise or fall on the amount of property taxes potentially at stake. Backers of the measure will tell you that the tax issue is nothing but a scare tactic anyway because passage of the measure won’t put anyone out of business.

Even so, I was kind of proud of my little scoop. I lean in favor Measure Z largely because I don’t trust the oil industry. Its outdated claim about paying $8 million a year in property taxes helps illustrate why.

But, unfortunately for voters and other truth seekers, my little scoop has been ignored by the titans of the local press corps. Even though I emailed it to them the same day I posted it on this blog. Even though several other practitioners of the journalistic arts subscribe to the Partisan and some probably look at it from time to time. Out of pity if nothing else.

I didn’t expect my scooplet to make it onto anyone’s front page but I did kinda hope it would be deemed worthy of a mention in the next Squid Fry column in the Weekly. Some fairly thin material makes it there some weeks. But no.

I also figured the Herald would mention it the next time it wrote about the measure in a big way. But no. Sunday’s paper contained an otherwise well done Page 1 story about the pros and cons of Measure Z but it simply repeated the $8 million figure, attributed to an out of date report from the Auditor’s Office, without mentioning the fresh report from  the assessor. Same thing with the paper’s anti-Z editorial.

I held out less hope for the electronic media. I was pretty sure they would just skip along collecting all that money for the oil industry commercials repeating the fib about the $8 million tax bill and wouldn’t set the record straight unless and until there was money to be made.

Where I come from, things like this matter, but I guess I’m just old and in the way now. And, well, what’s $3 million anyway? Heck, the oil industry executives have spent considerably more than that just on those helpful commercials. And they’ll probably plow the tax savings right back into the community. Right?

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Oil and gas well profiled on sunset skyThe anti-fracking hysteria (and I use the word advisedly) in Monterey County and elsewhere is vastly over-wrought, and based almost entirely on misinformation. See this from the EPA.

Here, in a nutshell, is the bottom line: last year there were 300,000 (count ’em, 300,000!) fracked wells in operation in the United States. Common sense tells us, or at least should, that if the magnitude of problems were even a tiny fraction (pardon the pun) of those claimed by the opponents, we we would be in the midst of an actual, as opposed to purely hypothetical, environmental nightmare. This is not to say that there are not risks, but that they are both manageable and greatly outweighed by the benefits.

The simple fact is that fracking has not only made the U.S. the world’s leading producer of oil but, thanks to the substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production, the world’s leader in the reduction of CO2 emissions. This year, more electricity will be produced from gas-powered plants than from coal-powered plants. Producing electricity from natural gas releases half the CO2 that doing so from coal does, with none of the nasty chemical byproducts. In addition, our dependence upon imported oil (and all that that implies) has been very significantly reduced. Simply put, fracking has had an enormous positive environmental impact.

To put the benefits in more concrete terms, thank fracking for the fact that you are paying a LOT less for gasoline that you were two years ago. See chart.

The truth is that properly regulated fracking would be not merely an economic boon to Monterey County but really, really good for the environment.

Given the standard envrio-nutty response to any suggestion that they are full of it, I should add that I have absolutely no financial interest in any energy-related company.

Allison is a retired computer industry analyst who lives in Carmel Valley.

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Colourful lollipop on green background with copy spaceExpect oil industry to pull out all stops to fight Monterey County anti-fracking initiative

Most Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s famous saying that, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” I think that’s good, as far as it goes but, nowadays, it doesn’t go far enough – and that’s where the Turner Corollary (TC) comes in.

The TC states that “With the help of a slick, professional, high-priced public relations campaign, you can fool most of the people most of the time.”

I tell you this because, if we are successful in our efforts to get an initiative on the November ballot to ban fracking in Monterey County, you can expect to be subjected to the slickest, most professional and most expensive public relations (PR) campaign to defeat it that the Petroleum Institute’s (PI) bottomless pockets can buy.

Although I have indulged my ego by naming the corollary after myself, I am certainly not the first person to notice the connection between corporate PR campaigns and the defeat of grassroots political campaigns.

John Stauber is a progressive political activist who noticed, in the 1970s, that he would enter a campaign (to halt construction of a nuclear power plant, for instance) with polls showing that his side had a 60-40% lead only to end up losing the election by 60-40%. He, also, noticed that the opposition (the nuclear power industry, for instance) mounted a very slick, professional and expensive PR campaign that was very effective in changing peoples’ minds. Very few of the factors that changed minds had anything to do with honestly demonstrating that nuclear power was safe or that the claims made by the anti-nuclear folks were wrong. Rather, by repeating lies and half-truths over and over in every media (TV, radio, print, mail – and add all of our new social media today) and even using people paid by the PR campaign canvassing door-to-door extolling the virtues of nuclear power. These folks did not identify themselves as being paid by the PR campaign and tried to appear, as much as possible, as simply concerned and involved citizens who just wanted to counter the anti-nuclear position.

Stauber’s growing understanding of how these PR campaigns were resulting in his causes losing elections led him to research the PR industry, in general, and the dirty tricks employed by these PR campaigns, in particular, that contributed to those losses. You can read about this in his 1995 book, co-written by Sheldon Rampton, entitled, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You : Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. Although the book is over 20 years old, it is as relevant now as it was then.

Incidentally, these PR techniques work because (or only when) they are unopposed. And they are usually unopposed because legitimate grassroots organizations – like Public Water Now in 2014 and Protect Monterey County in 2016 – rarely have access to the millions of dollars that corporations have. In 2014 Cal Am outspent Public Water Now $2.5 million to $100,000 on the measure favoring public ownership. That’s a 25:1 advantage.

We can expect to see a similar asymmetrical assault by the PI against our fracking ban. As a matter of fact, it has already begun. Ads by the PI have been appearing on TV, for months, extolling the virtues of oil production in Monterey County. The good news is that the situation is not hopeless. It is possible for grassroots political campaigns to defeat the PR campaigns of these rapacious corporations with the application of “people power.” If we are successful in mobilizing enough people to go door-to-door talking to their neighbors, explaining our position and exposing the lies of the PR campaign and its shills who may also be knocking on doors, we can be successful in the general election.

One final thought. The unfair advantage that wealthy people and corporations with limitless funds have in U.S. elections has been going on for so long (long before Citizens United in 2010) that most Americans don’t even bother remarking about it – if they notice it at all. They act as if this money imbalance is just an inevitable part of the political environment – which it isn’t. But that discussion will have to wait for another essay.

Turner, a retired Monterey dentist, is a community activist.

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