I made these photos at the San Ardo oil fields in Southern California, just off Highway 101, as part of an ongoing series exploring the intersection of energy and water issues in society. The project is in collaboration with the Center For Biological Diversity.
California is in the midst of an intense four year drought – the worst in over 1200 years. Scientists at NASA have warned that California has less than a year’s worth of water left in its reserves. The reduction in snow pack, river flow, and surface water availability has led to a dramatic increase in ground water extraction. As a result, underground aquifers, a type of irreplacable ‘fossil’ water, are dangerously low or have dried up completely throughout California. In many parts of the Central Valley wells have run dry and emptied aquifers have caused the land above them to sink.
How are energy and water issues related? There are a couple of clear answers. The severity and duration of the drought, experts say, is likely being amplified by human caused climate change and our incessant burning of fossil fuels. The energy we use, just like every other product we purchase, has a virtual water footprint. Extraction methods used by oil and gas companies are incredibly water intensive. For example, fracking a single well can require hundreds of thousands to millions of gallons of fresh water each time the well is fracked. All of that water is then permanently tainted with toxic chemicals that are harmful for people, agriculture, wildlife, and entire ecosystems. Adding insult to injury, some gas and oil companies have pumped billions of gallons of their fracking waste back into fresh water aquifers, contaminating them for people and agriculture.
Recently, Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the history of California. These restrictions are directed entirely at residential and urban water usage, which represent only 20% of the state’s overall human water footprint. Agriculture and industry, which account for 80% of water usage, were notably exempt from any mandatory restrictions. It’s true that agriculture accounts for a vast majority of that 80% slice of the pie, but currently we do not have clear data on how much water the oil and gas industry is using, where that water is coming from, or where it goes after they are finished with it. This lack of good information and transparency makes it rather difficult to inform good policy. Beginning April 30th, SB 1281 goes into effect, requiring oil and gas companies to make quarterly reports to state regulators about how much water they are using and where it is coming from. This is a necessary first step. According to Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute: “Without good data, we can’t have good policy. And it’s long overdue that the oil industry be transparent about water use and water quality.”
The oil and gas industry is certainly not the biggest user of water in California. But, the way they use it may be the most reckless and ridiculous. It’s more than a little ironic: there is precious little water remaining in California yet the state continues to allow oil and gas companies to toxify massive amounts of this water so that they can remove fossil fuels from deep underground. The eventual burning of this fossil energy will only exacerbate climate change and may further intensify drought conditions.
According to Mike Gaworecki at Desmog:
“The bigger issue with water use by the California oil industry is on the other end, when the produced water and other fluids from enhanced oil recovery techniques like fracking have to be disposed of … California is embroiled in an ongoing controversy over 2,500 oil industry injection wells found to have been improperly permitted by [the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources] DOGGR to operate in groundwater aquifers that should have been protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act. DOGGR has also allowed wastewater to be stored in open, unlined pits that have been shown to leach contaminants into surrounding land and groundwater — some of the pits are operating with no permit whatsoever, others with expired permits.”
Above: agricultural fields are right next to major drilling operations.
Above: The Salinas River flows directly through the San Ardos oil fields.
The following nonsense is mainly for the search engine robots. Read on, if you like. Drew is an Oakland Freelance Photographer and a San Francisco Freelance Photographer and a Bay area Freelance Photographer, a bay area conservation photographer, an Oakland wedding photojournalist and a San Francisco wedding photojournalist and a bay area event photographer and a Berkeley photographer; while he is based in the Bay area, Drew regularly photographs for clients throughout all of California, including Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, San Jose, Marin County, Santa Cruz, Eureka, Santa Rosa, Mendocino, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbra, and Napa, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, all across the USA and everywhere on Earth. He specializes in creative storytelling and artistic photojournalism, environmental photojournalism, conservation photography, environmental justice photography, and stories about human-earth relationships including urban farming, agriculture, water use, climate change, ocean issues, energy issues, pollution, and natural resource economics. He also specializes in editorial photography and lifestyle photography, portraits and headshots, corporate event photography, non-profit event photography, and branding photography for corporations, non-profits, and small businesses. You can view more of his photojournalism, editorial, and lifestyle work here and more of his documentary style wedding work here.