An efficient solution to a historic drought, or an environmentally risky pact with the devil?
That’s the question raised by California farmers who are irrigating their crops with waste water supplied by oil companies, in an arrangement slammed as dangerous by environmental campaigners.
Driving into the parched region around Bakersfield, in the western US state’s fertile Central Valley, it is evident how closely the agriculture and oil industries are related.
Lines of orchards stand near fields of oil wells stretched out as far as the eye can see.
Eighty percent of the state’s oil production and 45 percent of the farming industry is concentrated in a single county, Kern County, said Madeline Stano of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment.
With temperatures frequently exceeding 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in the summer, water is in scarce supply.
After four years of record drought, farmers can no longer pump water from rivers whose levels are dangerously low.
Drawing from the water table is also increasingly difficult: more than 1,000 wells have dried up in the region.
In a bid to diversify supplies, the Cawelo Water District, a cooperative financed by local farmers, has for 20 years used waste water from oil companies.
Abby Auffant, spokeswoman for oil giant Chevron, explained that crude comes out of the ground mixed with water, from which it must be separated.
Separating the water from the crude is a process that actually benefits oil firms, according to Stano.
“It’s hard for the oil industry to get rid of, so it’s a win-win for the oil companies” when they are able to sell the water, she said.
Chevron’s Kern River operation sells some 500,000 barrels of waste water per day to the Cawelo Water District, which currently gets 50 percent of its supplies from the oil company.
The water is cleaned by a filtering system and piped to a reservoir where it is combined with supplies from other neighboring oil plants, before being mixed with fresh water and then distributed to some 90 local farms and vineyards.
The farmers pay about $33 per acre-foot (1,233 cubic meters), compared to up to $1,500 for the same quantity of fresh water, said David Ansolabehere, head of the water distribution cooperative.
– A legal practice –
The practice is entirely legal: Chevron and rivals including Occidental Petroleum Corporation have a permit to sell the water. They have it tested by a third-party firm and then supply the results to California authorities.
“We’re in compliance with all the testing requirements,” said Auffant.
“There’s a petrochemical content in our… permit and we have always met and been under it.”
But environmental campaigners don’t see it the same way.
“It’s an experiment that the state of California and the oil industry performs without consumer consent,” Stano said.
“In Chevron’s own report we found benzine and acetone, which are carcinogenics” in the water sold to farmers, she said, claiming that the tests also fail to detect other dangerous chemicals.
“There has been a gentleman’s agreement to promote deregulation,” she added.
Stano denounced a “lack of state enforcement and oversight (and) blind faith in the industries for a long time.”
Scott Smith of the Water Defense lobby group, founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, also criticized the testing methods, which he called “outdated.”
“Chevron should be interested in partnering with more than just their complicit customer (Cawelo Water District) to protect health, community, environment and water resources,” he said.
Almonds, grapes and other agricultural produce are not evaluated apart from their pesticide content, Ansolabehere admitted.
He noted that Californian authorities have decided to form a working group that could order tests on farm produce, after a Chevron report showed salinity which Ansolabehere admitted “was a bit high.”
The group would also verify that chemicals like acetone or benzene “cannot get into the roots, the leaves and the fruit,” he added.
Tom Frantz, a former and environmental activist, said the stakes are high.
“People would stop buying anything from Kern County for a while if someone got sick,” he said.
Former Trump pal Donny Deutsch explains the president’s gamble on impeachment
MSNBC's Donny Deutsch has a theory about his old pal President Donald Trump and his latest strategy to wriggle out of trouble.
The "Morning Joe" contributor suspects the president, whom he used to know from their days in New York City, believes impeachment is inevitable, but he's confident that Republican senators won't remove him from office.
"Rev, I'm seeing a little bit of a different show here," Deutsch told the Rev. Al Sharpton. "You and I know Trump pretty well, or used to know Trump pretty well. I don't think there's any chance Mick Mulvaney went out there on his own."
Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, admitted during a press briefing that he held up congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in an effort to press the country to investigate a conspiracy theory about Democrats and the 2016 election.
Mick Mulvaney is Trump’s new fall guy on corruption — and Republicans just play along
It's getting increasingly more difficult to keep track of all the new impeachable acts President Trump commits every day. And perhaps even more difficult to imagine the most outrageous thing he can do that the Republican Party would still defend.
This article first appeared in Salon.
It took almost two weeks, but the White House has finally admitting what everyone knew from day one: Trump demanded a quid pro quo from the Ukrainian government before releasing military aid authorized by Congress. Republicans have been denying the obvious, remaining willfully blind to a brazen scheme. That suddenly seems quaint, now that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has confessed on live television that there was a quid pro quo.
The week Donald Trump’s presidency crashed and burned — and Republicans noticed
It feels as though every week during the Trump administration is a year and every year a decade. Every day there is a crisis or an outrage or a revelation that takes your breath away. But the underlying dynamics always seem to be the same no matter what. The press reports the story, the Democrats get outraged, the pundits analyze it, the president rages and then Fox and the Republicans all line up like a bunch of robots and salute smartly. Then we reset until the next crisis, outrage or revelation. It's an exhausting cycle that never seems to get us anywhere and it's bred a fatalistic response in many of us: "Nothing matters."