Offshore fracking gains transparency

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Photo: Linda Krop, Environmental Defense Center

It may soon become harder for oil companies to obtain permits to frack offshore. In a recent settlement with the Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm based in Santa Barbara, two federal agencies agreed to conduct an environmental review before permitting oil companies to start any new fracking offshore.

If approved, this would mark the first time anywhere in the nation that the two agencies that oversee offshore drilling, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), will be required to evaluate the significant risks that these practices pose to water and air quality, as well as marine life.

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Acidizing and fracking involve the injection of large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground in order to fracture rock. Documents obtained through EDC’s FOIA requests demonstrated that regulators with BSEE and BOEM were largely unaware of where or how frequently the practice had been used. In total, EDC’s case challenged the issuance of 53 permits authorizing offshore well stimulation from six offshore platforms, including two off Ventura County (labeled on map as Gail and Gilda) and four platforms off Santa Barbara County (Harmony, Heritage, Hondo, and Irene).

“We have no idea the full extent of impact those chemicals might have on marine species, or people who enjoy the waters here in Santa Barbara,” said Maggie Hall, staff attorney at EDC. The environmental assessment would study those potential impacts. It would also study the risk of spills when transporting chemicals to platforms and find out exactly where those chemicals go when discharged below the ocean floor.

Oil company officials say they’re already fracking safely. In a statement from the Western States Petroleum Association, President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said:

“The petroleum industry has operated safely in California for decades, and has worked closely with regulators and officials to ensure community safety, compliance, and extensive environmental review. The industry is committed to safe, environmentally sound operations everywhere in the offshore environment, including hydraulic fracturing and acidizing, which have been used there for decades without incident.”

For now, all permits to frack will be halted pending the environmental analysis.

“If they are safe, we want to see that demonstrated in the environmental documentation,” said Hall.

After the assessment is complete, there will be a 30-day public comment period. Moving forward, the agencies have agreed to publicly disclose online each permit submitted and approved.

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Document: Example of permit at issue in case