Hundreds of pages of federal documents released by the U.S. government to the Associated Press this week show that the controversial and toxic practice of hydraulic fracturing has moved offshore to an extent far greater than previously known.
The documents, obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the EPA has permitted fracking in the Pacific Ocean at least 12 times since the late 1990s, and has recently approved a new project in "the vast oil fields in the Santa Barbara Channel," which is also the site of a major 1969 spill of over 3 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean.
"While debate has raged over fracking on land, prompting efforts to ban or severely restrict it," AP writes, "offshore fracking has occurred with little attention in sensitive coastal waters where for decades new oil leases have been prohibited."
Fracking—the process of pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of salt water, sand and toxic chemicals into shale and sand formations—is most commonly referred to as a process of natural gas extraction and has come under fire from a growing anti-fracking movement for its well documented water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
In ocean wells, the same technique is used to stimulate oil flow. The process is the same and just as toxic—with most of the chemicals used still unknown to the public due to "trade secret" protections.
"California coastal regulators said they were unaware until recently that offshore fracking was even occurring," AP reports. The fracking has been done mostly in federal waters but California state regulators do have the authority to deny drilling permits if they can show that the procedures are polluting local waters.
"It wasn't on our radar before, and now it is," said Alison Dettmer, a deputy director at the California Coastal Commission.
The Government documents including permits and internal emails from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) reveal that fracking off the shores of California "is more widespread than previously known," AP reports. "While new oil leases are banned, companies can still drill from 23 grandfathered-in platforms in waters where endangered blue and humpback whales and other marine mammals often congregate."
According to AP, the EPA and the BSEE only conduct occasional routine inspections during these offshore fracking projects, and most spills or toxic leaks are left to the oil companies to report.
AP has more:
Federal regulators thus far have exempted the chemical fluids used in offshore fracking from the nation's clean water laws, allowing companies to release fracking fluid into the sea without filing a separate environmental impact report or statement looking at the possible effects. That exemption was affirmed this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the internal emails reviewed by the AP.
Fracking fluids can comprise hundreds of chemicals — some known and others that aren't since they are protected as trade secrets. Some of these chemicals are toxins to fish larvae and crustaceans, bottom dwellers most at risk from drilling activities, according to government health disclosure documents detailing some of the fluids used off California's shore.[...]
In March, a privately held oil and gas company received permission from the agency to frack some 10 miles off the Ventura County coast. The job by DCOR LLC involves using the existing wellbore of an old well to drill a new well. Three so-called "mini-fracks" will be done in an attempt to release oil locked within sand and rocks in the Upper Repetto formation.
Only a month before the application was approved, however, an official with the BSEE voiced concerns about the company's proposed frack and whether the operation would discharge chemicals into the ocean.
"We have an operator proposing to use 'hydraulic stimulation' (which has not been done very often here) and I'm trying to run through the list of potential concerns," Kenneth Seeley, the BSEE's regional environmental officer for the Pacific, wrote in a Feb. 12 email to colleagues. "The operator says their produced water is Superclean! but the way they responded to my questions kind of made me think this was worth following up on."
BSEE told AP that it is uncertain how often fracking has been used in the Pacific "without going through every single well file."