While Coastal Commission Ponders Offshore Fracking, Feds OK More of It

Friday, February 14, 2014

The California Coastal Commission, scrambling to get up to speed on recently revealed offshore fracking activity, received a briefing (pdf) from its staff Wednesday that showed, in passing, federal approval of four more previously unknown fracking permits.

The new fracks, pending at Platform Gilda off the coast of Ventura County, would add to the 12 confirmed instances of hydraulic fracturing in federal waters, according to a staff PowerPoint presentation. Fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sink holes.

The presentation also “confirmed use of acid stimulation” in federal waters. Acidization injects large amounts of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into wells to dissolve rock formations and allow easier access to gas and oil. It has flown under the radar as many critics of oil and gas drilling focus on the dangers from fracking. But many consider acidization a greater threat to health and the environment.

The raging debate over fracking nationwide has mostly centered on the safety of land-based activities. It only recently came to be known that drillers have already used it to crack open the ocean floor and injected thousands of gallons of pressurized water, sand and toxic chemicals into the Earth.

The Associated Press reported last August that it had discovered more than 200 previously unpublicized instances of fracking at vulnerable offshore sites using existing wells. AP documented at least a dozen instances of companies using fracking since the 1990s in the Santa Barbara Channel, site of a 1969 oil platform blowout that fouled beaches, killed birds and other wildlife, and inspired a law banning new drilling there.

But fracking an old well isn’t considered new drilling.

State officials denied any knowledge of the ocean fracking, which took place at six sites over two decades. The news service used public records to identify the drilling in waters off Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. The AP report amplified an online story by Truthout the month before that detailed two of the fracking operations.

The staff report Wednesday confirmed 212 fracked wells in state waters near Long Beach since 1994.

The Coastal Commission regulates activities in waters within three miles of shore, but the federal government holds sway beyond the three-mile limit. An exception is if that activity affects the state jurisdictional waters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given relatively free reign to drillers, claiming (pdf) it can’t ban fracking (even if it wanted to) because it lacked “authority to regulate the methods used to drill wells unrelated to discharges.”

But it does have the power to regulate discharges of pollutants from oil and gas platforms, and in December issued rules related to 22 of them. The new rules require companies to self-report some of what they are spewing into the ocean but don’t forbid the practice. “Thus, the WET [whole effluent toxicity] tests will provide information on the potential toxicity to marine life from chemicals used for well treatment,” the EPA wrote to the Coastal Commission just before this week’s meeting.

Although fracking has been used in a limited fashion across the country for decades, it has only recently been receiving attention as energy companies attempt to reinvigorate depleted oil and gas wells using new technology. It is coming under increased scrutiny in California as the state ponders tapping the Monterey Shale in Central California, a repository of oil that could top 15.3 billion barrels and may represent 60% of all shale oil in the country.

–Ken Broder