Slant Wells

January 14, 2016

Test Slant Well Has Extraordinary Conflict of Interest, Maybe More than One

Cal Am's desal project proposes intake wells near Marina. Research by Public Water Now discovered a conflict of interest. Dennis Williams and his company Geoscience owns international patents for slant well design and installation. Williams subcontracted to Cal Am AND the CPUC for evaluating the substance of test well modeling, data collection, and evaluation. Cal Am did not disclose to CPUC, nor the other members of the Hydrogeologic Working Group, nor the Mayors Water Authority, that Williams had these patents.

Cal Am initially denied, then admitted, that it was using the patents.

The CPUC agreed that there was a conflict, terminated its involvement with Williams/Geoscience and ordered Cal Am and Geoscience to reveal all their contract relationships. Cal Am and Geoscience also signed a new “no fee” agreement for the patents. The CPUC has made no statement whether its investigation continues, or has concluded.   

This conflict is extremely serious because the company that can profit the most by a successful slant well test is the very same helping to determine if the test is successful. A more astonishing conflict of interest is hard to find.  

This conflict of interest is extraordinarily important because the success of the slant well experiment is being closely watched statewide.  Major state agencies want a successful subsurface intake, as it tries to restrict open ocean intake for environmental reasons. The state has ordered that subsurface intakes be tested and pursued, if feasible, before considering other options. If conflicts of interest reveal a bias toward success, then the test will not be legitimate. Professional opinion arising from a conflict of interest must always be questioned for bias and ulterior motives.

Cal Am also plans on a short test period of about one year before the CPUC is asked to approve the project. That means less data over less time will be subject to greater influence by key opinion makers.  Ulterior motivations by any party could carry more weight when the data trail is short and less robust. It is a fool's game to defend the short test period to ward off problems with the Cease and Desist Order.  A speedy schedule is an expensive risk, and it falls on ratepayers.  .    

A second potential conflict of interest involves the agreement between Williams/Geoscience and the slant well driller – Bourt Longyear. The patents are world wide.  Bourt Longyear is an international driller. Does this potential for their joint future financial gain by sharing in royalties give them a vested stake in this test being successful? Are there ulterior motives that could influence their work and opinions, to be exploited to their advantage? Are there unknown financial incentives for “success”? Could self-serving interpretations exaggerate or falsify feasibility, cost effectiveness and therefore improperly suggest “success” of the test well?

The tainted and low credibility test well has these impacts:  
1. Ratepayers pay for others to make millions.
2. Ratepayers pay for an experiment that serves state interests.
3. Ratepayers take the financial risk for failure and stranded costs.
4. A shortened test period serves only those who may profit. It does not answer the state's question of 'feasibility”, nor generate facts for future use and guidance.
5. Mandated expensive testing throws all risks on local ratepayers.  

The CA Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Coastal Commission (CCC) should investigate this second potential conflict of interest. Furthermore both should be extremely doubtful over a bias of Geoscience based on proven conflict of interest.


August 7, 2015 / Monterey Bay Partisan

Coastal Commission Must Be Cautious in Assessing Desalination Test Well

By George Riley 

The following is my Aug. 7 letter to the California Coastal Commission’s executive director, Charles F. Lester, regarding the Cal Am test well:

Dear Mr. Lester,

Public Water Now (PWN) is the group that discovered the patents owned by Dennis Williams and Geoscience. PWN alerted the public about potential conflicts of interest. PWN is also the group that has harped on the phrase issued by the State Water Resources Control Board about pursuing subsurface intakes, “if feasible”, prior to pursuing other options.

I am writing to alert you to related issues that I hope you consider in the review of an amended permit for Cal Am, and the follow up monitoring and evaluation of data and circumstances re this test slant well.

PWN is well aware of the desire by you, the State Water Resources Control Board, California Public Utilities Commission, and others in the state that want a successful subsurface intake for desal facilities. PWN is also aware of the environmental reasons, and we do not disagree.

But PWN strongly objects to several factors that are in play, and you have a role in considering them.

How does the CCC remain objective and focused on the facts when it has a obvious public policy to support subsurface intake? PWN questions the depth of objectivity CCC will bring if the overlying policy goal is a successful subsurface intake for desal. Will CCC go the extra mile to guarantee its objectivity and interest in validated data and analysis? Is the CCC open to looking beyond the face value of the data it receives?

The patent royalty relationship between Dennis Williams/Geoscience and the driller – Bourt Longyear – has not been queried. Is it possible that substantive financial relationships exist between these two that could cause the data to be skewed to serve ulterior motives? Will CCC look into the contract relationship between Williams and Boart Longyear? Will CCC determine there are no royalty and shared self interests in the contracts or in the actual test well operations that could skew their reports?

Will CCC question the financial relationship of these key sources of data and opinion?

PWN has felt for some time that the specific test period got cavalier treatment by the CCC. I made this very point at your hearing in November 2014 on the initial permit. Since slant wells are not in use anywhere in the world, how can CCC not absolutely insist on a valid test period?

Not knowing what is a valid period, surely sophisticated professional attention is required. What is a valid test period? Will CCC opine on this? Will CCC prescribe a valid duration for the test period?The only known subsurface intakes for desal have occurred in California – Dana Point and Sand City.

1) Dana Point results after 18 months of test slant well pumping are these: no conclusions on viability; some sand infiltration problems; and pumping efficiency declined from over 90% to about 55% over 18 months.

2) The data from the Sand City vertical subsurface wells for a small 300 acre foot/year plant shows actual pumping efficiency over 4 year of operation to be in serious decline:

From Sand City Public Works, calendar year:

2011 96.8%
2012 69.6%
2013 64.8%
2014 60.8%

From Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, water year

2011 91.9%
2012 80.7%
2013 62.3%
2014 59.5%

This data on Sand City tells a very negative tale about reliability, and therefore viability. Why does pumping efficiency with subsurface intake decline so significantly over a few years? Dana Point and Sand City data clearly make this point! Has the CCC considered this? This is why a valid test period is critical. Experience so far does not dictate a “full speed ahead” mentality. In fact it screams out for caution. And to be skeptical about any optimism about short term data. The telling will be in the testing, and in the duration, not the first data available.

Will CCC require a legitimate test period of two years or more? Remember, Cal Am originally proposed a two year test period. But with unexplained lower performance at Sand City, is two years adequate?

Every diagram example in all sources describe slant wells as penetrating far enough under the sea floor to extract water from beneath the sea floor. The intent is clear – to avoid aquifer interference, and perhaps to avoid related water rights claims. But the Cal Am test well does not penetrate the vertical line at the mean high tide line. It stops landward of that line. Would this “test well” meet your normal standard for a test of under sea floor intake? The fact that it did not extend under the sea floor area should raise questions about design or engineering?

Was the drilling length too risky or difficult? Was the drilling capacity limited in some way? Is this an issue for feasibility? Was the design under the patents too limiting? Should horizontal directional drilling still be an option? Are there more experiments that should take place? Did the insistence on the removable casings create engineering demands that were excessive? Could the guidelines from the State Water Board have established too high a level of outcome that was too expensive for success? The fact of a shorter test well length than intended (by the proponent, the patent holder and the public promotion) must get questioned regarding its use as a “test”?

Furthermore the plan of Cal Am to proceed directly from a short test period into a development permit for nine production wells makes a farce of all the publicity about the “test well” being a legitimate test well! The plan of Cal Am is based on assumptions, not tests. There are enough questions about long term performance reliability and cost acceptability that should ring alarm bells at the CCC, and elsewhere.

Working out the details and the costs of this experiment should not fall on the ratepayers. This is a state-sponsored requirement, and should have significant state funding. I doubt you have access to funding assistance. At least you might acknowledge the unfairness of the state, and the corporate utility, foisting this unproven and little scrutinized experiment on ratepayers.

The CCC, having jurisdiction over the efficacy of slant well impacts, and having a deep interest in the long term success of subsurface intakes, should have a particular interest in seeing that it is done right. This is too new for the CCC to feel comfort in self-interested promoters and contractors.

Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?

If there is to be a successful test, there must be conscientious and professional attention to the fact that slant wells have never been successfully constructed and become operational anywhere in the world.

Costs can become astronomical, and should not fall exclusively on local ratepayers. State resources must be made available, since it is a policy goal of several state agencies for subsurface intakes. And the facts of declining pumping efficiency should also raise alarms.

We sincerely hope you will take these issues into account during deliberations and analysis of Cal Am’s amended permit.

Respectfully, George T. Riley, Managing Director Public Water Now