"If oil and gas wells are shallow and groundwater wells are increasingly deep, at some point they intersect," says one of the paper's authors, Robert Jackson, a professor and department chair in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Even in Kern County, California's oil capital, high-quality groundwater can be found relatively deep, according to Jackson, who sits on an independent panel that advises the state Department of Conservation on underground injection. East of Bakersfield, Jackson says, "we found oil and gas activity in freshwater aquifers. In no way were we saying that activity was illegal; some of these wells were drilled in the 1950s and '60s." But the study raised a question in his mind: "Do we want to continue the same policies we had then when demands on our water are so much greater today?"
California, which has always oscillated between wet and dry periods, has become increasingly warmer and drier. Declining precipitation and rising temperatures have conspired to drastically reduce the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides up to a third of California's water supply. As a result, the state has had to tap into its aquifers to quench the thirst of its booming population and agricultural industry. In some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, so much water has been drawn from the ground that the land has sunk by as much as 28 feet. Roughly 85 percent of California's public water systems rely, at least in part, on groundwater, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
While DOGGR's regulatory performance has improved in former Senator Pavley's view, she's keenly aware of the threats practices like cyclic steaming pose in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. "Any kind of pollution of their groundwater basins is a huge problem, affecting health and safety and the agricultural and tourist economies they rely on," she says. "That area, I think, is particularly vulnerable. It's not Kern County."
The first of May was cloudless and cool in San Luis Obispo as Charles Varni led a line of locals opposed to the expansion of the Price Canyon oil field across Monterey Street. Varni, a retired professor, held one end of a sign that read "BAN FRACKING AND NEW OIL WELLS." Natalie Risner, a business owner, held the other. Behind them, volunteers with the Coalition to Protect San Luis Obispo County, a grassroots group opposed to oil development in the region, carried boxes of documents bearing the signatures of registered voters in the county.
The coalition, co-founded by Varni and Risner, was behind a local ballot initiative, Measure G, which would ban all new oil wells and infrastructure in the county, conventional or otherwise. The group needed 8,500 signatures to get the measure on the November ballot. It collected 20,473.
"We're not stopping production, we're only stopping expanded production," Risner said from Woodstock's, a pizza place where the volunteers gathered to celebrate after dropping the signatures off at the county clerk's office. For Risner, the issue is personal: She grew up on a 23-acre ranch that abuts the Price Canyon oil field, and still lives there with her two young daughters.
Risner is no starry-eyed romantic; she anticipates a bare-knuckles fight with the oil industry. "They're going to be spending millions of dollars to try to defeat us," says Risner.
Recent history would indicate she's spot on.
Measure P — a 2014 ballot initiative in Santa Barbara County that would have prohibited "high intensity" petroleum operations like fracking and cyclic steaming in unincorporated areas of the county — failed after energy companies funneled $7.6 million into the opposition campaign. That's more than 25 times the amount Measure P's supporters were able to raise.
Monterey County's version — Measure Z — passed in 2016, but was largely gutted by the courts.
Today, Sentinel Peak Resources California, LLC, a privately held company based in Denver, owns the lease on Price Canyon. Christine Halley, a spokeswoman for Sentinel Peak, says Measure G's "deceptively written" language would effectively ban even the maintenance of wells in the area, crippling operations. "Existing wells require ongoing and necessary repairs, improvements, and upgrades that go beyond even routine maintenance," Halley wrote in a statement. "Banning such activities and critical parts of production means that existing oil and gas production will ultimately be shut down — as the Initiative itself concedes — resulting in the loss of more than 200 skilled, good paying jobs directly related to oil and gas production."
Sentinel Peak purchased the Price Canyon lease in 2016 from Freeport McMoRan, Inc.; in the process it inherited from Freeport an application to expand oil operations in the field by hundreds of wells, including steam-injection wells. The additional wells could increase the field's production by a factor of 10. But, due to a dip in oil prices in recent years, the expansion has been placed on hold indefinitely. In the meantime, first Freeport and then Sentinel Peak sought approval from DOGGR and the California Environmental Protection Agency to expand the area in which they could inject wastewater into the Dollie Sands formation, the aquifer that lies beneath the field.
Freeport first filed an application for an expanded aquifer exemption beneath the Price Canyon field in 2015. DOGGR sought approval from the EPA — which must sign off on every aquifer exemption as part of a memorandum of agreement between the two agencies — in 2016, but federal officials asked DOGGR to gather more data. The proposal is before the EPA again.
"[T]he science demonstrates that water wells will be not impacted [by the exemption expansion]," Halley, the Sentinel Peak spokeswoman, wrote, "and four state agencies have already confirmed this to be the case." But San Luis Obispo residents like Varni and Risner have lost faith in state regulators.