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Dex Dunford

Dex Dunford

Dex is an experienced researcher and reporter living in the heart of Alberta's oil country. He writes for Divergente LLC on emerging stories in the…

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Is Oil Wastewater A Cure For California’s Drought?

Is Oil Wastewater A Cure For California’s Drought?

As California grapples with a historic four-year-long drought, and farmers skimp on water for crops in the face of fines, oil wastewater is becoming both a laudable and uncomfortable answer to water woes.

Depending on who you ask, California’s drought may be over this spring. It may also never be over, with some scientists questioning whether groundwater reserves can ever reach pre-drought levels.

California isn’t the only U.S. state dealing with drought. As of right now, much of the western United States is experiencing some level of drought as well as parts of the upper mid-west. Water is a precious resource, and restrictions on water usage are becoming more and more common. Related: Utilities Just Declared War On Solar 

A recent national survey shows that nearly 75 percent of Americans believe that the agriculture industry should be first in line for water during a drought. It makes sense. Farmers grow our food and raise our meat. However, record fines being levied against farmers who pull too much water in California has the agriculture industry questioning what the future holds.

Could the answer really be held deep underground in oil wastewater reservoirs?

Before you turn your nose up at the thought of wastewater being used on the crops you eat; you should probably know that it is already being done. In fact, Chevron pumped 8 billion gallons of treated wastewater to farmers in California last year.

Recent figures estimate that about a third of oil wastewater is reused in some way. That means there is a large, unused source of water that could render aid to farmers. However, the cost of treating oil wastewater for use on crops is a major hurdle for producers to overcome. But first, we have to know if the wastewater is even safe for use on crops.

Legitimate concerns have been brought forward regarding the safety of treated oil wastewater. How effective is the treatment? Could the wastewater be harmful to people, plants, and animals? Water Defense, an environmental group, has been at the forefront of voicing these concerns. Related: Why OPEC Production Freeze Could Pave The Way For Actual Cuts

In response, the local water authority tested and confirmed that, in fact, the treated wastewater provided by Chevron was in accordance with existing guidelines.

Water Defense insists otherwise, though. It says that it conducted its own tests and found high levels of acetone and methylene chloride, which can be toxic to humans, in the Chevron irrigation water. It also claims to have found traces of oil that should have been removed during recycling.

As Mother Jones reported last summer, there are rising concerns about what the use of oil wastewater means for organic food labels, for one thing. While there is a ban on petroleum-derived fertilizers for organic standards, the ban says nothing about what might show up in irrigation water.

Treating oil wastewater has become a pretty lucrative business. Energy producers have been seeking the expertise of companies that can treat oil wastewater quickly, effectively, and on the cheap. Some of the latest innovations include using algae to treat oil wastewater and even using electrical pulses to turn the previously contaminated water into clean water that can be used by farmers on their crops.

The major problem with treating oil wastewater is the cost. New technologies are rapidly helping to reduce the financial burden on producers, but with oil prices as low as they are, even cheaper solutions are needed.

One great thing about reusing wastewater is that the pipeline doesn’t have to just flow in one direction. Related: Oil Production Rumor Mill Continues To Turn As Iran Hints At Freeze


The state of California is likely to be the pioneer of finding these sort of innovative uses for the oil industry’s wastewater—even if that is the result of mounting legal pressure to do something about the tens of thousands of disposal wells that dot the state’s underground.

But right now, the wastewater-for-agriculture segment may be getting by on some unforeseen environmental loopholes that will come under greater scrutiny as the waste-not-want-not irrigation practice becomes more prolific.

By Dex Dunford For Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Laurel Elias on February 19 2016 said:
    Santa Maria Energy is not fracking.

    They are using responsive cyclic steam, as are half of the producers in California.

    Will you print a retraction?

    I thought this is an oil industry website.
  • Wayne Pacific on February 19 2016 said:
    Based on he costs of the Alaska oil pipeline, I estimate that water pipelines could be built from the Great Lakes to the various regions of the dry West for about one half of what was spent on the Stealth Bomber fleet. But there is no productive imagination and there is no concern in the US congress about this catastrophic problem. All attention is devoted to attcking Russia and the middle east.
  • Rick Casey on February 21 2016 said:
    Using toxic water from fracking for agriculture is tantamount to tacitly poisoning people, by poisoning the soil, then their food. It is an insane policy. It reminds one of what happened in Flint, Michigan, where an entire city was poisoned by their government in the name of saving money. Fracking should never have been allowed to happen. It should be illegal, and would be, if not for the abominable "Halliburton Loophole" that was surreptitiously inserted into the 2005 Energy Policy Act by Dick Cheney. We have the technology to convert to alternative energy; it should be vigorously implemented with the same passion as we fought World War II, and devoted our entire economy to a war footing, almost overnight.
  • Beth Marino on February 22 2016 said:
    We appreciate Mr. Dunford's acknowledgement of Santa Maria Energy's efforts to find innovative solutions to help California's water problem while meeting the state's energy needs. We are very proud to be part of one of the first public-private partnerships of this type. However, Mr. Dunford included an error in the article that requires correction.

    Mr. Dunford inaccurately describes Santa Maria Energy's (SME) operations as using the technique referred to as "fracking." SME employs a secondary enhanced oil recovery technique, known as cyclic steaming, using recycled water to produce the steam. This process does not involve hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and differs from that process in many ways. The cyclic steaming process SME employs does not include high-pressure injection of fluids or chemicals to create and maintain conductive fractures but rather is an enhanced oil recovery production method using only vaporized water or steam specifically designed to avoid fracturing the rock.

    Please issue a correction notice.

    Thank you,

    Beth Marino
    VP-Legal & Corporate Affairs
    Santa Maria Energy, LLC
  • Laurel Elias on February 22 2016 said:
    This article originally misrepresented that a truly independent oil producer in Santa Barbara County is fracking when it isn't.

    Justly, they have printed a retraction since then.

Leave a comment

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