EDC Takes Offshore Fracking to Court
You may have heard about fracking and acidizing being utilized onshore in California, but offshore? As crazy as it sounds, oil companies have been fracking and acidizing from offshore platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel for two decades. Crazier still, until recently no one but the oil companies (including local elected officials and state regulators with the California Coastal Commission) was even aware that offshore fracking experiments were being conducted off California’s irreplaceable coastline.
In 2013, EDC helped blow the lid off this industry secret. After reviewing and analyzing thousands of pages of documents received through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we published Dirty Water: Fracking Offshore California. In Dirty Water, we provided the first detailed look at the use of offshore fracking and acidizing in California, called for the Obama administration to put a moratorium on their use, and provided several policy recommendations for federal regulators at the Department of the Interior (DOI) to come into compliance with bedrock environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act.
Unfortunately, the federal government has continued to conduct business as usual, routinely authorizing offshore fracking and acidizing through the use of checklist type NEPA documents called “categorical exclusions.”
Accordingly, at the end of 2014 EDC filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against DOI for its issuance of more than 50 permits for offshore fracking and acidizing to ExxonMobil, Venoco, Inc. and other oil companies. EDC’s lawsuit is the first to challenge offshore fracking, and alleges that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”, pronounced “Bessie”) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (“BOEM”) (the agencies within DOI responsible for overseeing oil and gas development in federal waters) authorization of offshore fracking and acidizing without prior environmental review, notification to the public, or opportunity for public comment violates NEPA.
The environmental stakes are high. Much of the fracking and acidizing that has been conducted offshore California has been done in the Santa Barbara Channel. The Channel’s biological diversity is so rich that the area has been called “North America’s Galapagos,” and the area harbors numerous threatened and endangered species, including blue, fin, and humpback whales, and the southern sea other. The protected lands and waters of the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary reflect the area’s importance.
Allowing oil production methods like offshore acidizing and fracking within this sensitive environment makes no sense. Fracking and acidizing involve the injection of large amounts of water and chemicals into the seabed in order to fracture or dissolve rock, an inherently dangerous activity. Under permits issued by the EPA, oil companies are allowed to discharge billions of gallons of oil and gas wastewater, including used frac and acidizing fluids, directly into the rich marine waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
Additional risks range from accidental spills of dangerous chemicals during transport or injection, to damage to well casing that may not be designed to withstand increased pressures, to geologic hazards due to fracturing and injection in seismically active areas.
And like all oil and gas development, offshore fracking and acidizing perpetuates reliance on greenhouse gas intensive fossil fuels and a time when transition to renewables is more urgently needed than ever.
The legal and policy stakes are also high. In the past year, similar revelations of widespread fracking in the Gulf of Mexico have emerged, and the oil companies are fighting to maintain the secretive status quo under which they currently operate. Both ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute moved to intervene in our case.
As ExxonMobil stated in its intervention brief, if EDC successfully compels BSEE and BOEM to comply with environmental laws prior to approving offshore fracking and acidizing, it would not only affect their California operations but “could also have far-reaching effects on ExxonMobil’s significant investment and operations in the Gulf of Mexico.’
If federal regulators cannot or will not properly implement and enforce our environmental laws, then oil companies should not be allowed to operate off of our shores. The utter lack of transparency regarding the use of offshore fracking and acidizing is astounding, and our lawsuit is intended to be an important first step towards bringing some sunlight to these dangerous practices.
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