It still surprises many Americans when they learn that California, a state with perhaps the greenest of environmental reputations, remains home to offshore oil and gas production in waters better known for surfers and sea lions. In recent weeks, Californians themselves, including even some state regulators, have been surprised to find out that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been secretly occurring along their coastline for years, without any analysis of its potential environmental impact.
The initial revelation of ongoing offshore fracking came as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the Department of the Interior by the Associated Press and Santa Barbara-based community organization the Environmental Defense Center, which just released a new report on the issue. The investigations have found over 200 instances of fracking operations in state and federal waters off California, all unbeknownst to a state agency with jurisdiction over the offshore oil and gas industry.
Offshore fracking, like the controversial onshore practice, uses water, sand, and potentially hazardous chemicals to blast through shale to “stimulate” the flow of oil and gas. They differ in that offshore fracking is still primarily used to stimulate existing oil wells, and isn’t yet associated with new drilling.
A small group of regulators inside the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) gave “categorical exclusions” to oil companies for frack jobs on existing offshore oil rigs, allowing them to proceed with the activity in the federal waters off the Golden State without any public disclosure or environmental impact analysis.
According to federal guidelines, categorical exclusions are intended for projects that don’t warrant an environmental review because they don’t normally “result in significant environmental harm.” For example, the US Forest Service issues them for land and water restoration projects, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service does so for activities like maintenance and management of existing facilities.
A commercial, industrial activity like offshore fracking is “the antithesis of what a categorical exclusion was originally intended for,” according to Environmental Defense Center attorney Brian Segee.
Recent reports show that relevant authorities within both state and federal agencies were in the dark about the issuance of categorical exclusions for offshore fracking activity. Officials from the California Coastal Commission, which has the authority to determine whether or not proposed oil and gas activities in federal waters comply with certain state environmental standards, reportedly said in August that the agency had no idea the practice was occurring, because it had not been routinely informed by federal agencies like BSEE.
Meanwhile, according to records discovered by Truth-out.org, some officials at BSEE only learned that others within the agency had approved offshore fracking while gathering information for external inquiries about the activity, and seemed to be surprised that environmental impact review for frack jobs in the federal waters of the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS, hadn’t occurred. “Has there been an EIS [environmental impact statement] to assess the environmental consequences of fracking on the OCS?,” one official asked in an email. “How can we begin to review permit requests without that?”
So far, FOIA-based investigations by journalists and environmental groups have turned up at least 15 instances of frack jobs approved in federal waters with categorical exclusions, and, reportedly, more are planned by offshore oil producer DCOR.
Fracking on land is riddled with questions about environmental hazards, but BSEE now claims the practice offshore is safe, only requiring 2 percent of the water and 7 percent of the sand used onshore.
However, very little is known about the environmental effects of offshore fracking, since no studies have been done to determine the contamination hazards or other risks. Given the basic activities known to be associated with onshore fracking, potential impacts could include spills of hazardous chemicals, which would degrade ocean water quality, and destabilization or even well blowouts. What’s more, “swarms” of minor earthquakes around the actively producing shale formations in Texas and Ohio have been attributed to fracking in those states, provoking concern for the triggering of tremors in what is an already seismically active area.
Californians have seen the results of oversight failures from exemptions and exclusions before. A major blowout at Unocal’s Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969 pumped over 3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific and blackened 35 miles of coastline. It was later determined that Unocal received a waiver from federal standards — akin to a categorical exclusion — so it could use inadequate well casings, which caused the blowout once they ruptured. The Santa Barbara blowout became a cautionary tale of lax governmental oversight and one of the foundations of the modern environmental movement.
The Environmental Defense Center concluded its report by calling for an immediate federal moratorium on offshore fracking, until environmental impact studies are completed. They argue that such studies will not only inform regulators, but also bring badly needed transparency and public participation to a process that so far has been bureaucratically opaque. As they put it, “If history is any guide, the federal government’s lax oversight of fracking and other well stimulation practices within the Santa Barbara Channel is cause for significant concern.” The long list of American communities impacted by hydraulic fracking and offshore oil spills, often following industry’s promises of safety, lends credence to their call.
Mark Dennin is an intern with the Center for American Progress’s Ocean Policy program, where Shiva Polefka is a Research Associate.