California Oil, Gas, and Groundwater Program

Publication: Reports and Papers


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Karolyte, R., Barry, P.H., Hunt, A.G., Kulongoski, J.T., Tyne, R.L., Davis, T.A., Wright, M.T., McMahon, P.B., and Ballentine, C.J.


Chemical Geology, v. 584



Noble gases record fluid interactions in multiphase subsurface environments through fractionation processes during fluid equilibration. Water in the presence of hydrocarbons at the subsurface acquires a distinct elemental signature due to the difference in solubility between these two fluids. We find the atmospheric noble gas signature in produced water is partially preserved after hydrocarbons production and water disposal to unlined ponds at the surface. This signature is distinct from meteoric water and can be used to trace oil-field water seepage into groundwater aquifers. We analyse groundwater (n = 30) and fluid disposal pond (n = 2) samples from areas overlying or adjacent to the Fruitvale, Lost Hills, and South Belridge Oil Fields in the San Joaquin Basin, California, USA. Methane (2.8 × 10−7 to 3 × 10−2 cm3 STP/cm3) was detected in 27 of 30 groundwater samples. Using atmospheric noble gas signatures, the presence of oil-field water was identified in 3 samples, which had equilibrated with thermogenic hydrocarbons in the reservoir. Two (of the three) samples also had a shallow microbial methane component, acquired when produced water was deposited in a disposal pond at the surface. An additional 6 samples contained benzene and toluene, indicative of interaction with oil-field water; however, the noble gas signatures of these samples are not anomalous. Based on low tritium and 14C contents (≤ 0.3 TU and 0.87–6.9 pcm, respectively), the source of oil-field water is likely deep, which could include both anthropogenic and natural processes. Incorporating noble gas analytical techniques into the groundwater monitoring programme allows us to 1) differentiate between thermogenic and microbial hydrocarbon gas sources in instances when methane isotope data are unavailable, 2) identify the carrier phase of oil-field constituents in the aquifer (gas, oil-field water, or a combination), and 3) differentiate between leakage from a surface source (disposal ponds) and from the hydrocarbon reservoir (either along natural or anthropogenic pathways such as faulty wells).