Oil, Food, and Water: Challenges and Opportunities for California Agriculture

oil,food,water report cover imageDecember 9, 2015, Oakland, Calif. – A new comprehensive study by the Pacific Institute  sheds light on the risks posed when oil and gas exploration and production operate alongside agriculture.

“There is growing concern about competition for land and water, and the impacts of soil and water contamination on the food supply and health and safety of farmworkers and consumers,” said Matthew Heberger, the study’s lead author.

The disposal of oil and gas wastewater, which contains harmful chemicals, is a particular concern for agriculture. Disposal in unlined percolation pits poses a significant risk of contaminating groundwater resources that may, in turn, be used by agriculture. While this practice has been banned in several states, it is still widely used in California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s most important agricultural regions. There are also serious deficiencies in the way California regulates the underground injection of wastes – current practices are not sufficiently protective of freshwater aquifers that may be used as drinking water or to irrigate crops and water livestock.

The report also examines several important questions about the impacts of the oil and gas industry on agriculture and makes recommendations for mitigating those impacts, including:

  • Does water used by the oil and gas industry deplete this scarce resource and thereby limit its use or drive up the price paid by farmers?
  • How much oil-field wastewater is already being used by the agricultural sector, and what are the risks for livestock, human health, and food safety?
  • Do we know enough about “legacy pollution” from orphaned oil wells that have contaminated soil and groundwater near farms?
  • Why is information on the state’s oil and gas activities so limited, and how does that hinder proper risk management by farmers and ranchers?
  • How can local, state, and federal policymakers and regulators make oil and gas exploration and production in California safer for the state’s food and agriculture activities?

The in-depth study tackles these key issues along with many others and offers recommendations for addressing water-related risks to agriculture from continued oil and gas operations. “In California, government and industry can and should do a far better job of protecting public health, the environment, and the safety of food,” said Heberger.   

Download the full study here.


The Pacific Institute is a global water think tank that creates and advances solutions to some of the world’s most pressing water challenges through interdisciplinary research and by partnering with a variety of stakeholders. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute envisions a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.