Dirty Water? Offshore Fracking Reports Alarm Activists

Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr
Photo: Doc Searls/Flickr

Oil platforms have long been a familiar presence off Southern California’s coast, but until recently, federal and state officials didn’t know the offshore rigs were doing more than traditional drilling.

They didn’t know they were fracking.

For at least the past decade, oil companies have used the extraction technique on platforms floating in some of the world’s most biologically diverse waters, from Newport Beach to northern Santa Barbara County, investigative reports by the Associated Press and the Environmental Defense Center, a watchdog group, revealed in October.

As California prepares to implement some of the toughest hydraulic fracturing regulations in the nation, activists are realizing that many of the offshore operations will be unaffected by the new law, because they’re located in federal waters.

“People thought, ‘Well, things are going to be fine now, but (the new law) only applies to state land,’” said Jim Hines, who represents the Sierra Club’s Los Padres Chapter, which includes Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

On Sept. 20, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will require fracking operations on state land to become more transparent by 2015. The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources is working on a draft of the regulations, which will force oil companies to disclose when hydraulic fracturing occurs, what chemicals are used and how they’re disposed of, among other requirements. The state division is using input from public meetings held across California over the past year.

“The Division currently does not have regulations that require operators to report the use of hydraulic fracturing for well stimulation,” spokesman Ed Wilson said in an email. “Those regulations are being developed, with the goal of providing a first draft to the public before the end of the year.”

Environmental groups initially backed the bill because it included a moratorium on fracking, but when that part of the legislation was removed, they withdrew their support.

While activists continue to call for moratorium on fracking until it can be better studied and regulated, the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil companies in California, says the practice is safe.

“Going back to the last major incident off the coast of California, over four decades ago, the industry has repeatedly upgraded and overhauled technology, training, and operations procedures,” WSPA president Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in a statement. “To that end, WSPA and the petroleum industry have worked alongside regulators to ensure offshore drilling is accomplished in a safe, reliable, and responsible fashion.”

The nation’s third worst oil spill occurred off Santa Barbara’s coast in 1969. Over a period of 10 days, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the ocean, killing thousands of birds and darkening the water from Ventura to Goleta.

The EDC, a nonprofit environmental law firm, was formed in response to the Santa Barbara Channel spill. Now, 44 years later, the organization says it’s especially troubled by a fracking operation that occurred this year on an oil platform off Ventura’s coast.

That oil platform, named Gilda, floats in the federal Outer Continental Shelf waters, near Channel Islands National Park, home to brown pelicans, island foxes and other endangered species.

Below the surface, at least seven times since 1994, the rig has drilled deep into the ocean floor and released a mix of highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals to extract oil, the Oct. 14 EDC report found.

There’s no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has resulted in oil spills or chemical leaks. Several platforms, including Glida, are permitted to discharge fracking fluids into the ocean, but it’s unclear if those fluids are treated prior to being released into the ocean,  said Brian Segee, staff attorney for the Environmental Defense Center.

Gilda is owned by DCOR, LLC, a Ventura oil company that is the state’s largest offshore operator, managing 11 of the 23 producing platforms, according to the EDC. The company did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Operations at Gilda are especially concerning, because the platform reported three minor spills in as many weeks this spring and also removed existing safety infrastructure in May, according to the EDC report.

“Talking about spills, it illustrates a basic fact of offshore oil production, which is that it’s risky even with “traditional” technology,” Segee said. “It’s never 100 percent error free — there are always spills on occasion — and our concern with offshore fracking is that it’s adding another layer of risk hasn’t been carefully analyzed.”

At least eight other platforms strung along the coastal waters of southern California, have also used hydraulic fracturing, completing more than 200 fracks, according to the EDC and AP reports.

But that number could be much larger, Segee said.

“The short answer is, we don’t really know, because the information is so incomplete,” he said.

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