Oil and gas companies use a lot of water to extract oil in drought-stricken California
California’s recent torrential downpour (October 25th and 26th) set records for the amount of rain dropped on the drought-stricken state this century. The fierce atmospheric river reduced wildfire risk, but the intensity of precipitation destabilized fire scars, resulting in erosion and landslides. While the rain was welcome, California is still far below the state’s average rainfall for the year, and the state’s reservoirs are still drastically low for this time of year. With the threat of forest fires at least on hold for the season, a serious conversation must begin regarding the climatic causes underpinning California’s drought and extreme storm events.
The availability of freshwater resources for the future is central to this discussion. In this report, FracTracker Alliance explores California’s oil and gas industry’s consumption of freshwater to understand which oil companies consume freshwater, where they use it, how much they use, and where it comes from. While Governor Newsom has requested Californians cut their personal domestic consumption of freshwater by 15%, little has been done to address the consumption of water by extractive industries. Governor Newsom has pledged a ban on fracking by 2024, yet this will do little to address the primary culprit of freshwater consumption – enhanced oil recovery.
Food & Water Watch recently reported that oil and gas companies have consumed upwards of three billion gallons of freshwater from municipal sources in California since 2018—resources otherwise reserved for drinking water and other domestic uses. This is according to data from the California Department of Geological Energy Management (CalGEM). Just under Governor Newsom, who came into office in January 2019, the state has used 1.44 billion gallons of municipal freshwater for oil and gas extraction (2019-June 2021). For comparison, these 3 billion gallons used for oil and gas drilling in California would fill 4,570 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or provide water for over 120 million showers for California households.
Considering the current state of California’s intense drought that has created the conditions responsible for the state’s massive forest fires, this is no small drop in the bucket; and this is only the tip of the iceberg. United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the lifecycle cost of extracting and refining one barrel of oil requires, on average, 1,850 gallons of water. In 2019-2020, CalGEM reported an average 151.7 million barrels of oil produced from California onshore and offshore extraction each year. While this FracTracker analysis focuses strictly on consumption of fresh municipal water from domestic, surface water, and groundwater sources for extraction operations, in total, California oil and gas operations consume upwards of 280 billion gallons of water for extraction and refining annually.
Continuing oil and gas extraction will only add to the climate change feedback loop that has induced and worsened the state’s drought that has already spanned over two decades.
Oil and gas industry threats to drinking water are not limited to just municipal supplies meant for domestic use. Besides appropriating on average one billion gallons from municipal sources annually, CalGEM data shows oil companies used an additional 660 million gallons from surface water sources—including the California Aqueduct—between 2018 and 2020. Operators pumped an additional 302 million gallons of potable groundwater from California’s vulnerable aquifers as well. In total, the oil and gas industry consumed over 4.6 billion gallons of freshwater in that three-year span just for enhanced oil recovery underground injection operations.
This analysis explores the data detailing the industry’s consumption from these three sources of freshwater: municipal sources, surface waters, and groundwaters. FracTracker summarized the data to show which companies, production practices, and oilfields are the largest freshwater consumers. This report’s results should be considered a minimum for water use totals—as the data sources had numerous omissions—and different sources reported very different volumes for the same years (e.g. CalGEM monthly vs. quarterly production and injection reports). This report begins by exploring how hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations impact water consumption.
Hydraulic Fracturing in California
While water consumption by the oil and gas industry is not regulated in any limiting manner, Governor Newsom has pledged a ban on fracking by 2024. Nationwide, fracking uses a vast amount of water, estimated at 140 billion gallons annually. On the other hand, fracking in California actually contributes very little to this total. Data on fracked wells was not available for 2018 – but in 2019, fracking operations reported using 10,959,546 gallons from these freshwater sources for injection, and reported another 17,549,394 gallons consumed in 2020. During Governor Newsom’s first two years (2019-2020), fracking operations used over 28 million gallons of freshwater.
For a state in perpetual drought intensified by climate change, these volumes are not trivial, particularly when used for oil extraction. Further fracking activity will continue to exacerbate the current water crisis via additional climate impacts, as well as threaten more groundwater resources. While Governor Newsom’s proposed fracking ban will be a welcome change for climate advocates, it does not go into effect until 2024, and does little to address the primary culprit of freshwater consumption – enhanced oil recovery.
Enhanced Oil Recovery Water use
Food & Water Watch’s recent report makes it clear that enhanced oil recovery (EOR) operations – including steam injection and water flooding – are the principal consumers of domestic municipal water by the oil and gas industry. EOR wells inject water and steam into oil reservoirs to move oil towards production wells where it can be pumped to the surface.
Food & Water Watch’s analysis provides a thorough breakdown of water volumes consumed by the different classes of EOR wells. Copied from their report, injected freshwater volumes from domestic municipal water systems are tallied in Table 1 below. The data clearly shows that steam injection (cyclic steaming and steam flood wells) consumes the greatest amounts of freshwater otherwise available for domestic use. Steam injection operations are water and energy intensive, on average using 30% of the fossil fuels extracted just to generate the steam (Hama 2014).
Table 1. Table from Food & Water Watch’s “Drilling California Dry” report shows domestic water usage by the oil and gas industry, broken down by type of extraction operation (January 2018-June 2021). Food & Water Watch. 2021. Drilling California Dry: An Analysis of Oil and Gas Water Usage Since 2018.
Domestic Municipal Water Districts
The sources of the two billion gallons of freshwater used by oil and gas operators in 2019 and 2020 are the municipal water districts listed in Table 2 below. Oil and gas operators that consumed the freshwater are listed in Table 3. Chevron is the largest consumer of freshwater from municipal sources in California of any oil and gas company. The majority of Chevron’s operations are located near Bakersfield, where they access the West Kern Water District – which provides the most freshwater to oil and gas companies of any water district in the state. Operators like Chevron, Holmes Western, and Aera Energy have contracted industrial water service agreements with West Kern Water District and several other domestic water suppliers to use municipal water stores for oil and gas extraction. Purchases of water entitlements from water districts are completed at negotiated discount industrial water rates and traded among oil companies, such that agreements can be decades old – while the municipal infrastructure necessary for water treatments is otherwise subsidized by the public and communities.
Table 2. Sources and volumes of domestic water consumed by oil and gas companies for underground injection in California. Data summarized from CalGEM monthly and quarterly injection reports 2018, 2019, and 2020.
Table 3. Volumes of domestic municipal waters consumed by individual oil and gas companies in California. Data summarized from CalGEM monthly and quarterly injection reports 2018, 2019, and 2020.
In addition to the three billion gallons off freshwater used by the oil and gas industry (2018-2020), another 660 million gallons were taken from California’s surface water sources, including the California Aqueduct and the previously referenced West Kern Water District. These surface water systems are typically reserved for agriculture and domestic use. The Aqueduct provides domestic water to 2.7 million users in California. In Tables 4 and 5 below, surface water volumes are summed to show the largest sources used for injection, and the operators using the majority of the surface water for oil extraction. The California Aqueduct provides the majority of surface water – resources otherwise restricted to agricultural operations due to limited availability. The impact on agriculture has led to increased water costs for small farmers, already struggling to compete with “big ag”. The primary users of these supplies were Berry Petroleum in 2019 and 2020, and Crimson Resource Management in 2018 and 2019.
Table 4. Sources and volumes of surface waters consumed by California oil and gas companies for underground injections. (Data sourced from CalGEM Monthly and Quarterly Injection Summary Reports, 2018-2020)
Table 5. Volumes of surface waters consumed by individual oil and gas companies in California. (Data sourced from CalGEM Monthly and Quarterly Injection Summary Reports, 2018-2020)
Much of the industry’s water also comes from groundwater. This elevates the risk of contamination of ground waters. Pumping and consuming groundwater reduces an aquifer’s capacity to withstand contamination from oil drilling and extraction. Between 2018 and 2020, the industry pumped at least 2.6 billion gallons from groundwater aquifers for oil extraction, according to CalGEM production data. But the volume is likely much higher. CalGEM’s data for water production volumes was inconsistent and incomplete (CalGEM’s quarterly and monthly production reports disclose drastically different volumes). The oil companies siphoning fresh groundwater are listed below in Table 6.
Table 6. Volumes of groundwater extracted using ‘water source’ wells in California. Water source wells are water wells managed by oil and gas companies. (Data sourced from CalGEM Monthly and Quarterly Production Summary Reports, 2018-2020)
Groundwater consumption increases contamination risks for aquifers by reducing their capacity to dilute salinity and hydrocarbons. Sources of salinity and hydrocarbon contamination can be waste pits, or extraction activity in neighboring underground formations. In many cases, water source wells are created by plugging oil production wells at a depth above the formation, and perforating the well casing at the depth of groundwater aquifers. These methods have the potential to contaminate groundwater resources.
Such is the case of the water source well identified as Lease A.D.P Hunter-Rogers (API#411120640), shown below in Figure 1. According to CalGEM documents summarized below in Figure 2, the oil production zone of the well borehole was improperly isolated from the upper freshwater zone. When this issue was addressed, workers found multiple failures in the protective well casing meant to isolate oil from groundwater. This scenario is not unique; it can – and often does – lead to contamination of the groundwater zone by oil and other hydrocarbons. This is a common issue for aging oil and gas wells, some of which are retrofitted as water source wells.
Figure 1. Letter from CalGEM (Formerly DOGGR) to an oil and gas operator concerning an improperly plugged oil well that was leaking into the groundwater of a wildlife preserve located outside of Los Angeles, California, in January 2019.
Water source wells are often in areas where groundwater resources are considered underground sources of drinking water (USDW). In the map below, 35% of California’s active “water source” wells are drilled into USDWs—including the well identified above as A.D.P Hunter-Rogers—which was drilled through a USDW in Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Oil production needs to be limited within protective distances from groundwater resources and USDWs.
Without adequate regulations, the current solution to pollution is only dilution.
California Water-Source Wells
Figure 2. Map of Water Source Wells in California. The map shows water source wells and EOR. The boundaries of aquifer exemptions are also shown. Aquifer exemptions identify areas where the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the sacrifice of groundwater zones for oil and gas extraction. These groundwaters are typically contaminated from legacy oil and gas operations, and are no longer considered underground sources of drinking water (USDWs). View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
The USGS is currently working with the California State Water Resources Control Board to study the impact of oil and gas operations on groundwater quality.
An initial assessment of the proximity of groundwater to oil and gas drilling identified 22 major oil and gas fields as the highest priority of relative risk based on numerous factors (Davis, T.A., Landon, M.K., and Bennett, G.L., 2018). More focused risk assessments are being conducted to prioritize the locations for additional monitoring. Monitoring wells are used to track groundwater contamination via sampling. A map showing the prioritization of California oil and gas fields, along with the location of groundwater monitoring locations can be found on the State Water Boards website. It is clear that expansion of these oilfields will increasingly degrade the surrounding groundwater resources.
The Take Away
While 4.6 billion gallons is certainly a lot of freshwater – particularly considering the current state of California’s drought – the volume of water injected by oil companies has decreased over the last three years (2018-2020, likely due to market pressures and a lack of demand for crude during the Covid-19 pandemic. State legislators and Governor Newsom have an opportunity to limit the re-expansion of water consumption for oil and gas production. Without responsible legislation to protect California’s freshwater resources, growth in the fossil fuels market could return the state to less sustainable practices. According to CalGEM injection data from just 10 years ago, the California oil and gas industry consumed on average 8.4 billion gallons of freshwater (per year!).
In a dry year or decade, every drop of water consumed by oil companies matters, as it is taken from California’s farm fields and domestic users, increasing the cost of both water and food. California is in the process of closing out 2021 as the state’s second-driest water year on record, with nearly 88% of California now in the clutches of “extreme drought”. While Governor Newsom has declared a drought emergency, conservation efforts continue to fall short of state targets. While the public has cut their water use by 5% compared to last year, the oil and gas industry continues to consume freshwater and contaminate groundwater resources. Furthermore, burning more fossil fuels only reinforces the impacts of climate change that add to the severity of the drought. Continuing on this trend will result in more adverse impacts on California agriculture, drought-damaged forests, worse wildfires, reduced hydroelectricity generation, stressed fish populations, and depleted groundwater aquifers. California must phase out oil extraction in favor of healthy energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels in order to lessen the threat of megadroughts now and in the future.
Appendix I; Methods
This analysis used CalGEM data collected from operators (oil companies), as required by State Bill 1281. The data is published by CalGEM in monthly and quarterly production and injection reports for oil and gas wells. Production and injection data was downloaded for the years 2018, 2019, and 2020 on July 11, 2021. Data was mapped using ESRI ArcGIS Pro V 2.7.0 software.
References & Where to Learn More
- CalGEM 2018 Monthly and Quarterly Production and Injection Databases. Downloaded 8/10/21. https://www.conservation.ca.gov/calgem/Online_Data/Pages/Index.aspx
- CalGEM All Wells Database. Downloaded 8/1/21. https://www.conservation.ca.gov/calgem/Online_Data/Pages/Index.aspx
- USGS Oil and Gas fields for regional groundwater monitoring based on a preliminary assessment of petroleum resource development and proximity to California’s groundwater resources. Downloaded 8/12/21. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sir20185065
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