By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California's oversight of wells where oil companies dispose of wastewater brought to the surface is hindered by inadequate staffing and poorly organized paper records, a state review of the program said Thursday.
In a report to the state legislature, California's Department of Conservation (DOC) found that wastewater injection wells also suffer from inconsistent permitting, monitoring and enforcement of their construction and operation, among other problems.
"The division hasn't owned up to its responsibilities as a regulator in the past, but we are rapidly moving towards doing that," Steve Bohlen, head of California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which oversees the state's drilling activities, said on a conference call with reporters.
Along with the report, the department announced a broad overhaul of the state's oil and gas regulatory program that will include beefing up staffing and improving recordkeeping to improve monitoring and enforcement. The efforts will go beyond just the issue of underground well injection.
"This is an extensive report," Bohlen said. "We dug deeply. We left no stone unturned."
Interest in wastewater injection wells and whether they pose a risk to drinking water supplies has risen as the state battles its worst drought in recent history.
In March the DOC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began reviewing the thousands of injection wells in the state to determine if any violate the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The report is "another example of California’s rigorous expansion of regulatory oversight and supervision of oil production activities," Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of oil industry trade group the Western States Petroleum Association, said in a statement. "State regulators are now collecting and inventorying a huge amount of information from the state’s oil and gas producers."
The DOC has already issued "shut-in" orders for 23 wells for violating the act and is testing to verify there has been no contamination of groundwater near those sites.
The DOC has said they have not yet found any indication of injection wells contaminating potential drinking water supplies.
But an attorney for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity blasted the state's oversight of the wells oil companies use to dispose of wastewater.
"State officials have endangered California’s drinking water by waiting for more than a year to disclose knowledge of this systemic failure of oil industry oversight," Hollin Kretzmann, said in a statement. "That’s outrageous and utterly unacceptable."
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Additional reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Rigby and Diane Craft)