Chevron Making a Killing with Water in California—But at What Cost?

The Kern River Fields in California are just one area where Big Oil pumps oil in the Golden State. Photo credit: Antandrus / Wikimedia
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The Kern River Fields in California are just one area where Big Oil pumps oil in the Golden State. Photo credit: Antandrus / Wikimedia

The Kern River Fields in California are just one area where Big Oil pumps oil in the Golden State. Photo credit: Antandrus / Wikimedia

The drought in California is bad news for residents, farmers and authorities—but not for Chevron, which is making a killing by selling treated oil-field wastewater to the state. It wouldn’t be the first time Chevron had engaged in shady environmental activity that resulted in a killing, both financially for Chevron and literally, in that case, for some Ecuadorian citizens.

The Chevron water is being sold for irrigation purposes, not personal consumption. That’s because it would likely not be safe to drink the millions of gallons that the oil giant recycles daily. But irrigation water is, of course, intimately involved with agricultural products, Which raises the question: can it be dangerous to consumers, even if it’s not consumed directly?

Toxic Chemicals and Oil Found in Chevron Water

The non-profit group Water Defense tested the wastewater and the results are alarming. The analysis revealed high levels of the potentially dangerous chemicals acetone and methylene chloride.

The water also contained oil, despite assurances that it would be filtered out.

“All these chemicals of concern are flowing in the irrigation canal,” said Water Defense’s chief scientist Scott Smith, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “If you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.”

With California contemplating expanding the wastewater program to other companies, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, experts warn that the toxic chemicals used in the production of oil may eventually end up in the human food chain.

The Times noted that one of the samples Smith collected in California showed levels of methylene chloride four times higher than those he found in a river contaminated by a a tar sand pipeline spill in Arkansas, an event that resulted in evacuations.

Dirty Water for Irrigation Another Byproduct of Fracking

Right now, it’s anybody’s guess whether the crops being irrigated with the oil-field wastewater are already contaminated. This is because, as the Times reported, wastewater testing has been very limited. While the cocktail of chemicals used in oil production, especially fracking, keeps growing, the government’s testing technology has not kept pace.

Officially, California authorities are praising the Chevron arrangement as a win for a state suffering a years-long drought. At the same time, government officials are stepping up efforts to find out exactly which chemicals are being used in oil production—chemicals that might already be finding their way into the fields and orchards of California’s agricultural heartland.

Is California’s agricultural heartland in danger of irreparable contamination? Photo credit: Malcolm Carlaw / Flickr

Is California’s agricultural heartland in danger of irreparable contamination? Photo credit: Malcolm Carlaw / Flickr

Halliburton Loophole Remains Open

California can expect no help from Washington to bring transparency to the oil industry. Earlier this year, for example, the Senate voted to keep the so-called “Halliburton loophole” open. That legislation specifically prevents the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating fracking or requiring permits for companies to engage in the controversial oil extraction method.

California, however, has instituted its own fracking disclosure rules that companies have to comply with by June 15. This should give the state a better idea of exactly what chemicals are being introduced to its irrigated fields by the wastewater it is buying from Chevron.

For useful context on Big Oil’s past water practices–including the industry’s lies, cover-up and ultimate defeat in a historic Mississippi federal court case involving highly toxic radioactive substances—see the memoir Crude Justice by plaintiffs’ environmental attorney Stuart Smith.

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0 responses to “Chevron Making a Killing with Water in California—But at What Cost?”

  1. dyannne says:

    We, the people, are now at the mercy of the most greedy,evil nincompoops in the history of the earth. They poison us in every way they can to make a dollar. And there is no mercy. Sad.Sad.Sad.

  2. JoanneCorey says:

    Fossil fuel production wastewater should never be used on the surface. California and every other state should ban it. Period.

  3. Pat Goldsmith says:

    This shows how desperate the situation in California really is. This water is not fit for irrigation but it’s all there is, particularly after the oil industry slakes its thirst for water for fracking. Let’s remember, too, that most water used in fracking stays deep underground and is withdrawn from the hydrologic cycle. It’s not just polluted, it’s gone. To cut off the oil industry would require California’s leadership to radically alter the status quo. They would have to admit, in the first place, to a dire emergency. They would have to ban fracking and take huge steps to rapidly set up an alternative energy platform. As advanced as California may seem in this regard, it is not doing enough, none of us are, and clearly no state can do it on its own. As the effects of climate change become more apparent, they obviously also become more destructive, which in its own way tends to harden people’s denial, like the gambler who can’t walk away from a losing streak. This drought, like all major weather phenomena occurring now, may not be entirely the result of climate disruption, but there can be no reasonable doubt that it is heightened and worsened by the gigatons of carbon we continue to pump into our atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon has topped 400 ppm and stayed there all this month, which should alarm all of us. It’s time to see what climate chaos can and will do to our food system if we don’t act NOW and kick our response into high gear.

  4. Hugh Kimball says:

    Of course this stuff is dangerous. We have banned even using it on the roads in at least a dozen counties in New York State and also from being “processed” through biological waste treatment plants which are not designed to handle flowback or produced brine.

    Califiornia should forbid the use of water to frack and stop any usage of contaminants from being put on land. At this point in CA water has to be far more valuable than either gas or oil. Where do Californians plan to live if there is no water?

  5. FiuToYou says:

    How can you dumb stupid Americans allow this to happen. I mean this is a catastrophic event that’s is only going to get worse. And it’s being shoved down your throats by the same bullshit that’s responsible for ‘no water’. I’m talking Washington DC; home of the worst corruption in history, and their suck buddies ‘big oil’. You people in California and all states for that matter, better get your heads out of your ass and start taking control of your situation, and I mean ‘the whole 9 yards before it’s going to be you telling your grand children……”sorry you can’t live on this earth, ’cause we were too stupid to see what was happening right in front of our eyes” They talk about pipelines, but what about the essence of life?……WATER!!!!!

    • punkyboy says:

      Sounds like a plan – do you have any suggestions for us dumb, stupid Americans to actually take control of a government that will not listen to us because its ears are plugged with oil money? Who would you vote for if almost every single politician marches to the oil drum? Who would you write a letter to, send a petition to? Who would you believe when you are constantly lied to by those put in charge of doling out information that has been vetted in many case by the polluters and criminals, and when any “whistleblower” tries to alert the population is prosecuted and jailed?

    • punkyboy says:

      The time is not yet ripe for that. Not enough people are aware of what is really going on, nor are they uncomfortable enough – most have enough to eat, live in decent homes, have some kind of job, and can buy – if on credit – the toys and gadgets that advertising tells them they must – must! – have. They listen to the MSM that keeps them focused on the “terror out there” instead of the real problems at hand. When – and if – they finally are aroused enough to storm the battlements, they will find waiting for them the full force of U.S. military and their local police – remember, now the President has the power to kill Americans on American soil if he deems them a threat to “national security.” Posse comitatus (sp) has been tossed into the dust bin along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights – American troops can be unleashed on American cities if the corporations and the 1% feel threatened. Some believe that American soldiers won’t fire on American citizens, but their job is to kill the enemy, and it is so very easy to turn brothers into enemies – you do know about the American Civil War, don’t you – a war also fought for economic purposes, not so much to “free the slaves.” And then there was Nazi Germany, where a certain class of people was turned into scum on the word of a madman – scum that needed to be herded into camps to “cleanse” the Homeland. Guess it’s better to die fighting – we’ll see what choice is finally made.