Why Did California Regulators Choose a Firm with Ties to Chevron to Study Irrigating Crops with Oil Wastewater?

Chevron is the largest provider of the wastewater. GSI Environmental identified no health risks associated with the controversial practice.

Kern County farmers use oil field wastewater to grow water-intensive crops like oranges in one of California's driest agricultural regions. Credit: Liza Gross

Kern County farmers use oil field wastewater to grow water-intensive crops like oranges in one of California's driest agricultural regions. Credit: Liza Gross

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In 2015, a California water board suddenly found itself under a microscope for allowing farmers to irrigate their crops with oil field wastewater, a practice it had condoned for decades.

The California Council on Science and Technology had just revealed that the testing and treatment of hazardous chemicals in oil field wastewater used for irrigation was inadequate, and legislators were demanding increased oversight. They feared that oil companies’ wastewater was threatening groundwater needed for drinking water and growing crops.

Faced with heightened scrutiny, the California’s Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board raced to secure a consultant to study the controversial practice and soon settled on GSI Environmental as both qualified and unbiased.

Last fall, armed with GSI’s completed studies, the board tried to put concerns about the practice to rest, assuring the public that the firm had found “no identifiable increased health risks” from irrigating crops with water recycled from oil wells. 

But the board should never have chosen GSI, scientists, public interest activists and former regulators said in interviews, citing the firm’s close ties to the oil industry—ties so close that GSI once listed on its website Chevron, ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum as clients “we answer to.” 

Chevron is the largest producer of oil field wastewater for irrigation in California. The company saves millions of dollars in disposal costs by selling the “produced water” to a local water district, which in turn sells it to farmers in Kern County to irrigate their water-intensive almonds, pistachios and citrus.

When the water board retained GSI, the firm had already earned millions of dollars helping Chevron defend its interests in a single court case. 

The Discovery Well, Kern River Oil Field, where oil was discovered in 1899. Credit: Liza Gross

In addition to Chevron, GSI had also helped other corporate polluters defend themselves against claims of environmental and health harms by providing litigation support and expert witness testimony, documents filed in state and federal courts show.

Beyond its legal defense services, GSI regularly takes research funds from the chemical and fossil fuel industries, and collaborates on research with scientists who work for these industries, a review of the scientific literature shows.

And it has published commentaries that cast doubt on evidence that oil and gas extraction or chemical industry products cause harm, without disclosing its litigation support for these industries or its industry funding as a conflict of interest. 

Robert Scofield, who led the work for GSI, said in a statement via email to Inside Climate News that his firm performed the studies in “the most technically sound manner.”

Despite the water board’s public assurances about food safety, experts say GSI’s studies do not provide sufficient evidence to support those claims. And the board’s own Food Safety Expert Panel concluded that the studies could not answer fundamental safety questions about irrigating crops with water recycled from oil wells.

Defending Chevron in Court

GSI Environmental, a Houston-based firm with California offices, has a long history of working for oil companies and the law firms that defend them.

In 2010, John Connor, president of GSI, took the stand in a Mississippi circuit court on behalf of Chevron. He had come to defend the oil giant against five women from Fayette—a town whose residents are predominantly poor and Black—who blamed Chevron for their children’s health and intellectual disabilities.

The women had worked in a building converted from a gas station that their lawyers tied to Texaco, bought by Chevron in 2001. They believed leaded gas fumes from storage tanks left underground had seeped into the building while they were pregnant and caused their children’s disabilities.

GSI's Ties to the Chemical and Oil Industry

Connor testified that a gas station across the street was to blame. But, the women’s lawyers offered proof that there had never been a gas station across the street. Three days after Connor’s testimony, a jury awarded the women $19 million.

During the trial, Connor acknowledged that between 2000 and 2010 Chevron paid his firm nearly $8 million, documents filed with the Circuit Court of Jefferson County show. Between 2004 and 2008, GSI received roughly $5 million for what Connor testified was “a major undertaking” for Chevron’s defense against Indigenous Ecuadoreans seeking damages from Texaco for allegedly dumping billions of gallons of produced water in the rainforest.

Connor had been tapped as a lead expert witness for Chevron by the international law firm King & Spalding, which also defends the tobacco industry.

“There’s a sense that if someone has done work for one party, that they’re somehow beholden to that party, but it’s not really the case,” Connor said. “In our case, we work for all kinds of different companies. And we don’t take on the mantle of any of those companies.”

Connor estimated that litigation support accounts for about 30 percent of GSI’s business. “Some of it’s been for government,” he said. “A lot of it’s for industry, on their problems.”

The water board had determined that GSI did not appear to have a bias “that would be unacceptable.” A simple Google search reveals Connor’s public testimony about GSI’s work for Chevron in Ecuador.

The water board had required proposed consultants to “execute” a disclosure statement in an agreement between the board and the oil companies and water districts it regulates. But neither the board nor GSI could find a copy of a completed statement. Connor said the board never sent it. 

Clay Rodgers, the official in charge of the water control board’s food safety review, said he had no proof of sending it, but if he didn’t, it was likely a simple oversight. “We reviewed GSI’s background extensively,” Rodgers said, “noting that they had done some work for oil companies in the past.”

Rodgers said he was not aware of GSI’s expert witness and litigation support for the oil industry. 

Something in the Water

Scofield, GSI’s lead on the project, told a water board official that he could not find a disclosure statement in the firm’s files, in an email obtained by Inside Climate News. Scofield also told the water board official that GSI met the board’s criteria.

“Specifically, we ‘possess the experience, expertise and impartiality necessary to ensure the quality of the Study,’” Scofield wrote, paraphrasing the board’s requirements for a consultant.

Chevron representative Jonathan Harshman said the water board chose a consultant based on the firm’s qualifications and integrity. The water board staff found GSI Environmental “to be well qualified and unbiased in their approach,” said Harshman, communications advisor for Chevron’s San Joaquin Valley Business Unit.

Successful, highly qualified consulting firms work for a multitude of companies, said Rodgers, who worked nearly two decades in private consulting himself. The board took steps to limit contact between GSI and the oil districts and water districts that paid their fees, he said, adding that it would have been “almost impossible” to find a consultant that did no work for oil companies but had the expertise needed for this type of project.

“You’re going to disqualify perhaps most of the highly qualified folks if you say you can never have done any work for an oil company,” he said.

“That’s the problem in a nutshell,” said Benjamin Franta, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, where he studies the behavior of the fossil fuel industry. “When conflicts of interest become so pervasive that they become normalized, and there’s no alternative, that’s a problem.”

Industry Influence on the Panel

The Central Valley water board convened its expert panel in 2015 to make sure it wasn’t missing potential health harms from growing crops with produced water. Two experts on the nine-member panel had ties to the oil industry. One expert had worked for the consulting firm ERM, whose clients included a California spinoff of Occidental Petroleum, California Resources Corporation, or CRC.

Another was nominated by Chevron, which initially paid for her participation. Mark Bradford, who joined the seven-member water board three years after the panel was formed, had long worked for ERM when he was appointed to the board by former Gov. Jerry Brown. Bradford now chairs the water board. 

At the Food Safety Panel’s first public meeting in 2016, Mark Jones, a panel member then working for the consulting firm ERM, presented a study sponsored by Occidental spinoff CRC, a provider of produced water.

Jones, who based his study on CRC data from its Kern Front oil field, assured the panel that produced water from the company’s oil field fell below levels of concern for every chemical analyzed in every crop tested.

But Jones had looked for just a fraction of the chemicals that might be in the crops. When a public health scientist on the panel, Seth Shonkoff, asked Jones if he thought his data accurately reflected what was in the wastewater water coming from the oil fields, Jones acknowledged he didn’t know.

Pump jacks operate next to a vineyard in Kern County, the heart of California's oil industry. Credit: Liza Gross
Pump jacks operate next to a vineyard in Kern County, the heart of California’s oil industry. Credit: Liza Gross

Soon after it became clear that Jones worked as a paid consultant for the oil industry, a coalition of public interest organizations urged the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board to require panel members to disclose conflict of interests on forms made public.

The board declined, explaining in a letter that it was unnecessary because panel members had been asked to “base their scientific conclusions on an objective assessment of all relevant evidence,” rather than voice the views of their affiliated organizations. In any event, the board wrote, Jones is no longer employed by ERM.

The groups made another appeal for disclosure in June 2017, after learning that a second panel member, Barbara Petersen, had been nominated by Chevron. Petersen works for Exponent, which also consults for oil and gas companies.

Chevron funded her participation through much of the first year, then her position was funded by CalFLOWS through at least May 2017. CalFLOWS is a tax-exempt coalition of business, farming and energy interests concerned about the state’s water future. Its board of directors includes representatives of Chevron, CRC and another supplier of produced water, Aera Energy.                                                                                         

Petersen did not respond to several requests for comment. Jones, who now works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said through an agency spokeswoman that he did not feel comfortable talking about his role with the panel because he no longer works on the project.    

Months after public interest groups again raised their concerns about the expert panel’s makeup, they still had seen no response from the board, Bill Allayaud, California government affairs director for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, said at a public meeting. “Is there a response to that yet?” he asked Rodgers.

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“We did look at what we considered viable potential conflicts of panel members,” Rodgers replied, explaining that the board wanted a group that represented all the stakeholders.

“I had a lot of complaints about Dr. Shonkoff being part of the panel, that he was biased in his approach,” Rodgers added at the meeting, referring to Seth Shonkoff, executive director of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute. “My comment was, ‘I need a panel that represents everybody. I want Dr. Shonkoff on the panel because he represents a different view.’”

Asked later in an interview who had complained about Shonkoff, Rodgers declined to tell Inside Climate News.

Western States Petroleum Association, or WSPA, which lobbies on behalf of Chevron, Exxon and other oil giants, paid Exponent and ERM $169,000 between 2016 and 2020 for consulting and other unspecified services, campaign finance disclosures show.

Shonkoff said he told the board early on that it was of the “utmost importance” that advisory boards fill out conflict of interest forms. There should be a transparent process that reveals who has a stake in the project’s outcome, he said. “We did not go through that process.” 

Shonkoff himself was approached by the Environmental Defense Fund, which wanted to pay for his time on the panel. He felt being funded by an environmental advocacy group would be inappropriate, and turned down the offer.

“Scientific knowledge generation should not be conducted by a stakeholder group,” said Shonkoff, the only panel member who had published several peer-reviewed studies on the public health effects of oil and gas operations. “It needs to be independent.”

Turning Waste into a Resource

Produced water is the oil and gas industry’s largest waste stream across the country.

Regulators don’t track what California oil companies pay to dispose of it. But Eric Hoek, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, said costs range from about 10 cents a barrel for on-site disposal to as much as $15 a barrel to truck it to a permitted disposal well.

For an industry that disposes of more than 700 million barrels of wastewater each year—about 29.4 billion gallons—disposal is a costly proposition. Chevron can save more than half a million dollars a year by selling its wastewater to a local water district.

That’s why Chevron forged a deal with the Cawelo Water District, north of its Kern River Oil Field, in the mid-1990s. Chevron saw an opportunity to reduce disposal costs, and Cawelo welcomed an alternative water source for farmers in one of the state’s driest agricultural regions.

Steaming wastewater from Chevron’s Kern River Oil Field is blended with freshwater at Cawelo Water District’s “Reservoir B,” before it’s sent to irrigation canals. Credit: Liza Gross

Farmers in Kern County, the center of California’s oil industry, use about 36,000 acre-feet of produced water a year to grow mostly water-intensive almonds, pistachios and citrus. That’s nearly 12 billion gallons or enough to cover about 36,000 football fields with a foot of water. Chevron supplies nearly two-thirds of farmers’ produced water in California.

At the first public meeting, Cawlelo’s general manager, David Ansolabehere, said the district pays as much as $170 an acre-foot to pump groundwater and up to $200 an acre-foot for surface water—that is, when it’s available. In contrast, the district pays just $30 an acre-foot for produced water, providing an incentive to expand the practice.

To ensure continued access to a cheap, reliable water source, the district hired its own consultant, Enviro-Tox, to analyze crops just as the Food Safety Project got underway. The district also hired a PR firm to help field media inquiries from around the world, said Ansolabehere.

The firm, Fiona Hutton & Associates, also handles public relations for WSPA, the oil industry trade group.

WSPA spent nearly $9 million to lobby state politicians and regulators in 2014, when California tightened rules on produced water, and more than $2 million in the last quarter of 2016, when WSPA lobbyists approached the Central Valley Water Board and other regulators about “food safety for produced water for agriculture.”

The Central Valley water board took over Cawelo’s testing program, Ansolabehere noted in a 2019 memo, to “eliminate a potential perceived conflict of interest with Cawelo managing the food safety analysis process.”

The board also turned down Cawelo’s suggestion to use its consultant for the Food Safety Project studies, concerned that Enviro-Tox’s previous work for oil companies presented a conflict, said Jessica Jahr, counsel for the State Water Resources Control Board.

Instead, Cawelo proposed GSI Environmental.

“We Answer to Them”

Ansolabehere said he recommended GSI because they’d done similar work in the past and could “perform the work in the time allotted.”

GSI’s Scofield, asked if he had disclosed his firm’s work for the oil industry, including providing expert testimony in court, replied by email: “The organizations to whom we have provided our scientific consulting services are identified on our web page and are available to all parties.”

Told there is no list of clients on GSI’s website, he acknowledged that the current site does not identify clients and that there appear to be no live links to past web pages that did.

The Internet Archive does provide those links. On a 2010 page promoting its services under the heading WE ANSWER TO THEM, Chevron tops the list of industrial clients, followed by ExxonMobil, Monsanto, Halliburton, Schlumberger, Occidental Petroleum and BASF.

“Oil companies are companies that have environmental problems,” said GSI’s Connor. “That’s what we work on, so we work for them.”

A lot of people in the scientific community work for different parties, Connor said. “It’s not expected that you’re going to say, ‘Hey, I worked for this one company, so my opinion is colored by that.’”

Connor said he’s aware of concerns of bias around consulting for pharmaceutical companies. “But that’s not a consideration in our business,” he said. “Everybody that does what we do works for a lot of different companies.”

There’s abundant evidence that industry involvement in research tends to produce findings that favor the sponsor’s product, said Lisa Bero, professor of medicine and public health and chief scientist at the University of Colorado’s Center for Bioethics and Humanities. This so-called funding effect has been documented in the tobacco, chemical, drug, food and fossil fuel industries, among others.

“I think most people are not even aware there are consulting firms that are hired by big companies to basically do science for hire,” said Stanford’s Franta.

If a firm has a history of working with an industry with a vested interest in the outcome of an enterprise or has any current or prospective future financial interest in that industry—such as revenues from consulting work—that’s a conflict of interest, he said.

“If you worked for them in the past, it stands to reason that you might work for them again, and that’s an ongoing interest,” he said. “That’s why even past work should be disclosed.”

The business model of these types of “product defense” consulting firms is to produce reports that polluting corporations can use to slow regulation or win court cases, said David Michaels, a George Washington University professor of environmental and occupational health and former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“These firms only write reports that are in the interests of their corporate clients,” said Michaels, whose book “Triumph of Doubt” details how regulated industries manufacture scientific uncertainty to protect their bottom line. If their reports found their client’s product was dangerous, he added, “they’d lose business.”

“Bent” Science

Several years ago, Wayne Landis, an expert in ecological risk assessment at Western Washington University, set out to evaluate the sustainability of hydraulic fracturing with his student MariAnna Lane.

When they dug into the technical literature, they didn’t find much research. And much of what they did find was “severely bent,” said Landis, referring to a strategy described in the book “Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research.”

Science is “bent” when it is “willfully manipulated to serve a predetermined policy goal,” Landis and Lane explained in their chapter for the 2016 book Environmental and Health Issues in Unconventional Oil and Gas. Industries often deploy the strategy to deflect blame and liability, though Landis and Lane found examples in government, academia and nongovernmental organizations as well.

The pair encountered different degrees of bending science, Landis said in an interview, but one group stood out as an “excellent example”: GSI Environmental.

GSI’s Connor and his colleagues published papers on the source of methane contamination of groundwater in a poor, rural region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where dozens of families had sued Cabot Oil & Gas, claiming its drilling polluted their wells. GSI coauthored the papers with Cabot Oil & Gas scientists and thanked the company, one of the biggest drillers in the Marcellus Shale, for permission to publish their data.

The studies concluded that methane contamination was a natural feature of the region’s geology, unrelated to fracking.

That GSI absolved fracking of responsibility for contaminating groundwater might not have seemed suspect, Landis and Lane wrote in their chapter, if it hadn’t also attacked contrary research that did implicate fracking, using inflammatory language not typically found in scientific discourse.

It’s common for scientists to critique papers using precise terms that dissect the methods and data analysis. They don’t use loaded language, he said in the interview, like calling harmful findings “allegations,” as GSI did on its web site.

“Mr. Landis incorrectly criticized peer-reviewed publications by two GSI staff members,” Connor wrote in an email. “Mr. Landis is not an expert in the scientific topics of these publications, and it does not appear that he reviewed the technical content of the papers.”

That reply is actually bending science, Landis said. “We had very specific criteria,” he said, which laid out the kinds of terminology used when someone intentionally bends science.

Landis said the fact that Connor attacked his technical expertise, but not his evaluation of the language as evidence of bending science, is telling. His response, Landis said, “was bolstering this case that it was bending science.”

In an interview Connor said that researchers who had linked fracking to groundwater contamination wouldn’t release their data. In fact, the scientists had an agreement with homeowners to protect the address of their wells and released the data in a way that retained their privacy.

Last July, Physicians for Social Responsibility, or PSR, reported that Chevron, ExxonMobil and other major oil and gas companies had used toxic chemicals called PFAS in more than 1,200 wells in six states. Scientists have linked the perfluorinated compounds, dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, to developmental delays, thyroid disease, impaired immune function, cancer and other serious health problems.

After a flurry of national stories about the report, GSI Environmental scientists, led by Connor, posted a critique on the firm’s web site.

“We find that this article presents an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of the use of PFAS in hydraulic fracturing and the risks posed to public health and the environment,” Connor and his GSI colleagues wrote.

They listed eight reasons why readers should not believe PSR’s report, and noted in a news release that GSI received “no third-party funding” for the critique.

The same year GSI did acknowledge funding from the FluoroCouncil, PFAS-manufacturers’ trade group, to publish a framework to assess the chemicals’ toxicity. The FluoroCouncil promotes the claim, contrary to independent research, that new “short chain” compounds are safer than their “long chain” counterparts, PFOA and PFOS, which have been phased out due to concerns about their human health and environmental risks.

Connor said he had nothing to do with the FluoroCouncil project, so it wouldn’t have been on his mind. And when a firm works for a lot of different companies, it’s not expected to disclose funding for just doing a “project,” he said. “That’s not how it’s done. It doesn’t represent any type of failure to disclose.”

Furthermore, he added, the GSI paper had nothing to do with whether PFAS was dangerous or safe, which is a FluoroCouncil issue, but whether it was in fracking fluid. “I wouldn’t say that was a failure to disclose,” Connor said, “because it’s about the use of that material in the oil industry.”

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Yet Linda Birnbaum, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and an expert on the substances, read the GSI critique as a dismissal of public health concerns around most PFAS. She said the firm claimed the public health concerns PSR described apply only to the most well-known compounds, PFOA and PFOS, not to other fluorinated compounds.

“That’s just not true,” Birnbaum said.

Meanwhile, the water board entrusted a consulting firm that has defended the oil industry against high-stakes claims of environmental and health harms to conduct unbiased studies in the public interest. Had the board asked about the firm’s work for oil companies—the ones it once listed on its web site—it may have considered alternatives.

There are many, many other kinds of organizations that could be neutral parties that really are neutral and do the type of research that informs policy, Landis said.

That’s a role universities, and especially the state universities and land grant universities that are used to doing applied work, can play, he said. “There was no need to go to an industry stalwart.”