The modern environmental movement was born when a drilling platform blew out and some 100,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel in 1969, polluting California’s famous coastline. Yet as the race to exploit the vast amount of oil in the Monterey Shale heats up, environmentalists are warning that the state of California's lax oversight of the controversial oil production practice known as fracking, especially when it occurs on offshore oil drilling platforms, could lead to another major disaster.
Last October, the Associated Press revealed that offshore fracking is occurring much more frequently than California officials are aware. More than 200 fracking projects were discovered to have taken place over the preceding two decades in waters near Long Beach, Seal Beach, and Huntington Beach, some of the California coast’s most famous attractions.
Because fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a slew of toxic chemicals deep underground at extremely high pressure to break up the rock formations where oil is trapped, there's not just the risk of another oil spill polluting Cali's beaches but a number of threats that are not fully understood.
California passed a law last year that included some basic requirements for oil companies to disclose what chemicals are used in fracking fluids and to obtain a permit from the state for fracking operations, but the Los Angeles Times, echoing the sentiments of many environmentalists and legislators, said the law had been “so watered down as to be useless.”
The oil industry continues to insist that fracking is totally safe, even as it attempts to evade any and all new regulations. According to the Surfrider Foundation: “Despite [the] industry vowing to conduct their activities in a transparent and open fashion, the fracking industry has repeatedly failed to provide notice of offshore fracking…to the [California] Coastal Commission.”
Other than another spill, the chief concern is that the oil industry is allowed by federal regulators to dump as much as 9 billion gallons of wastewater into the ocean every year, and no one knows what the impact of fracking chemicals will be on ocean and coastal ecosystems.
“To date, little data has been collected,” says Allison Dettmer, deputy director of the California Coastal Commission.
The Coastal Commission was encouraged by new rules issued by the EPA in January requiring oil companies to disclose what chemicals are used in offshore fracking fluids, but Comission staff want to implement their own review process.
The state can only regulate what happens in its own waters, which extend three miles from the shore. Federal regulations govern drilling practices more than three miles out, but the state can get involved in regulating projects in federal waters if it is determined that those projects would impact health and safety closer to the coast.
The Coastal Commission emerged from a meeting last Wednesday with new recommendations for tightening up regulation of offshore fracking projects in both state and federal waters. But according to Miyoko Sakashita at the Center for Biological Diversity, these recommendations don’t go far enough:
The staff made great recommendations with regard to federal waters, including a suggestion to seek review permits for offshore fracking to reduce risks to the marine environment. Unfortunately, the Coastal Commission staff should have made more robust recommendations in state waters. Even without direct dumping of fracking chemicals into the ocean, there are serious risks in storage and transport of the massive amounts of dangerous chemicals used for fracking. A chemical spill can wreak havoc on human health and aquatic ecosystems, as we saw recently in West Virginia.
Miyoko says that California should be requiring all offshore fracking projects to be reviewed and permitted by the state.
Despite these environmental concerns and the ongoing process to implement tighter regulatory oversight, the federal government approved three new fracking sites off of California’s coast last week.