You Can’t Drink Oil: Wasting Freshwater for Fracking and Drilling in California

In a new report, Food and Water Research reveals that since Governor Newsom was elected, from Fall 2018 to June 2021, the oil and gas industry used 1,804,566,792 gallons of freshwater, nearly 2 billion gallons, for drilling operations that could otherwise have supplied domestic systems.

For a comparison of what that looks like, the nearly 2 billion gallons of water used to drill oil and gas wells in the state would fill about 2,732 Olympic-sized pools or supply local California households with over 72 million showers, according to the report. It also exceeds the amount of water that Californians are recommended to use on a daily, per capita basis during drought, 55 gallons/day.

“The freshwater sucked up by the oil and gas industry since Governor Newsom’s election could have provided everyone in the city of Pasadena with the recommended amount of daily water for more than 7 months, or everyone in the city of Ventura for almost 10 months,” the report also found.

By year, the oil and gas industry used 362,772,984 gallons of water in the fourth quarter of 2018; 694,417,962 gallons in 2019; and 646,682,190 gallons in 2020; and 100,693,792 gallons through June 2021.

Oil and gas operators continue to use these hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater for drilling operations annually as California suffers from a major drought and enters a climate change-fueled wildfire season. “It’s a vicious symbiotic cycle: fracking and drilling contribute to climate change and suck up finite water resources, then drought and wildfires worsen from climate change,” the report stated.

Although Governor Gavin Newsom pledged on the campaign trail to “oppose fracking and other unsafe oil operations” and to shut down the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in Los Angeles — the group said he has “yet to make his promises a reality.”

“At the same time, oil and gas development pollutes and threatens California’s finite freshwater resources. making it unusable,” the group stated. “When oil and gas corporations want to discard the toxic wastewater produced during drilling, underground injection is their most common disposal method.”

“In California, some corporations have routinely injected oil wastewater directly into aquifers. This toxic wastewater contains fracking fluids, contaminants, brines and radioactive materials. Injecting toxic wastewater into underground wells puts drinking water at risk and is linked to increased earthquake activity,” the report continued.

On top of all of this, the increase in frequency, size and severity of wildfires associated with climate change can have huge impacts on water sources in burned areas, according to the report. These regions have more soil and stormwater runoff, increasing the amounts of sediment, nitrogen, phosphorus and trace metals present in the water, as well as causing higher turbidity and more organic material to enter the water.

“Fossil fuel extraction not only hastens climate change and endangers the lives of frontline communities,” said Alexandra Nagy, director of Food & Water Watch’s California campaigns. “It also takes water from Californians struggling through one of the hottest and driest droughts on record. Regions like the San Joaquin Valley are bracing for a dry summer that will leave many without drinking water, a devastating prospect for a predominantly rural, Latinx region already suffering from decades of pollution from factory farms. Based on the recommendations provided by the state to Californians for water usage in a drought, the freshwater used by the oil and gas industry during Newsom’s term could have provided everyone in Ventura with more than a year’s worth of water.”

Nagy noted that oil and gas companies routinely inject drilling wastewater into freshwater aquifers, rendering their water supply undrinkable. One study estimated that groundwater in the Central Valley Aquifer has the potential to decrease by 21 trillion gallons in the next 30 years without significant management and policy changes.

“Governor Newsom has set the date for phasing out oil drilling in 2045. The research also notes that as greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel extraction rise and fuel climate change, California will continue to see drier droughts and more widespread wildfires. Should the average temperature increase by 1 degree Fahrenheit, water supplies from the State Water and Central Valley Projects are expected to decrease by 4%,” she stated.

“This is not a problem to be solved decades from now,” Nagy concluded. “20 years is too late for the communities on the frontlines going thirsty because the fossil fuel industry is sucking up their freshwater and leaving polluted aquifers in its wake. Governor Newsom must end all fossil fuel extraction not only for the sake of our climate, but also for the sake of Californians who depend on water resources that are already dwindling. Our state will burn and our rivers and aquifers will dry up unless Gov. Newsom displays the climate leadership he has long claimed to prioritize: ban oil drilling and all fossil fuel extraction now.”

As California entered the current drought year, state regulators continued to approve new permits for both oil and gas wells, although they have sharply decreased from previous years.

Oil permit approvals for new drills of both oil and gas production wells plunged 90% to only 100 permit approvals in the first quarter of 2021, according to the latest CalGEM data crunched by FracTracker Alliance for “The pandemic suppressed demand for oil and oil company permit applications,” the Alliance and Consumer Watchdog noted.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher