Five Fundamental Failings in Draft Study of Offshore Fracking and Acidizing

As required by EDC’s recent lawsuit settlement, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (“BOEM”) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) (agencies of the U.S. Department of the Interior) on Monday announced the availability of a draft environmental analysis of the use of fracking and acidizing from offshore oil platforms in southern California, including the Santa Barbara Channel. The announcement initiates a 30-day period in which the public may review and submit comments on the document, entitled Programmatic Environmental Assessment of the Use of Well Stimulation Treatments on the Southern California Outer Continental Shelf (deadline of Wednesday, March 23).

The draft study is a hard fought requirement of our settlement agreement and is the first of its kind—even though the federal government has periodically permitted the use of offshore fracking and acidizing since the 1980s, it has never evaluated the environmental impacts and risks of these practices. Prepared under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the study is a preliminary step in determining whether offshore well stimulation may have significant environmental impacts. If so, BOEM and BSEE must prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement (“EIS”).

Unfortunately, the draft analysis falls short in several fundamental respects, including:
1 ) Offshore Fracking and Acidizing Have No Impact?
Platform Holly. Photo by Erin Feinblatt.

Platform Holly. Photo by Erin Feinblatt.

Nearly without exception, BOEM and BSEE conclude that offshore fracking and acidizing will have no environmental impacts. Air quality, water quality, induced seismicity,

benthic resources, commercial and recreational fisheries, areas of special concern, recreation and tourism—for all of these impacts, BOEM and BSEE conclude that “no WST [well-stimulation techniques]-related impacts [are] expected.”

These no impact conclusions are difficult to take seriously. As just one example, oil companies discharged 7 million liters of drilling fluid, 2,313 metric tons of cuttings(solid material removed from drilling boreholes), and 9.4 billion liters of produced water from the 23 offshore oil platforms located in federal waters off California’s shores directly into ocean waters during one recent year alone. These discharges are just one example of significant environmental impacts caused by offshore oil in general, and offshore well stimulation in particular, but the draft environmental analysis blithely dismisses all of these impacts.

2) Prohibiting Offshore Fracking Will Have Greater Impact Than Allowing It?

BOEM and BSEE not only conclude that offshore well stimulation has no environmental impacts, but incredibly, the agencies assert that prohibiting its use is in fact more harmful for the environment than allowing it without restraint. As stated in the draft analysis, “Implementation of Alternative 4 [barring offshore well stimulation] may necessitate the drilling and production of new wells offshore and/or onshore, increase [well stimulation technology] use at onshore wells, and/or increase the need to import more gas and oil. These would all increase environmental and societal cumulative impacts.”

They are basically saying that fracking is dangerous no matter where it is, onshore or offshore. We agree. But this does not mean that they should allow it offshore. Rather, it clearly demonstrates there is no place these well stimulation techniques should take place, not on land or in our ocean.

3) BSEE and BOEM’s Job is Not the Promotion of Offshore Fracking and Acidizing:

NEPA requires that federal agencies clearly identify the underlying purpose and need of their environmental analysis. BOEM and BSEE incorrectly describe the purpose of the draft analysis as allowing the use of offshore fracking and acidizing, rather than determining whether these dangerous technologies can be safely used off California’s irreplaceable coastline. The presumption that the federal government is required not just to permit, but to promote, offshore fracking and acidizing regardless of risks or consequences is incorrect, and presents a rotten foundation upon which the rest of the document’s flawed analysis is built.

4) Offshore Fracking and Acidizing Extends the Life of Aging Offshore Platforms, Itself a Significant Impact:

The draft environmental analysis repeatedly acknowledges that the use of offshore fracking and acidizing, as well as other enhanced oil recovery techniques, is allowing for continued production from southern California offshore platforms that otherwise would not be possible. Some of these 22 aging platforms, operating under 43 active leases, are as old as 50 years.

As illustrated by the Plains All American pipeline spill at Refugio State Beach last year, oil infrastructure poses risks of failure and associated spills to the onshore and offshore environment. Offshore fracking and acidizing, as well as other techniques, are extending the life of offshore platforms and related infrastructure, thereby increasing the risk of oil spills and other accidents, another facet of impacts that is not acknowledged in the draft analysis.

5) Inadequate Analysis of Risks of Offshore Fracking and Acidizing to Santa Barbara Channel:

Photo by Erin Feinblatt

The large majority of California’s offshore oil platforms (19 of the 23 platforms in federal waters) are located in the Santa Barbara Channel. As detailed in our 2013 “Dirty Water” report, which helped blow the lid on the fact that offshore fracking was even occurring, the Santa Barbara Channel harbors extraordinary biological diversity, so much so that it is dubbed “the Galapagos of North America.” Blue, fin, and humpback whales, and the southern sea otter are among the threatened and endangered species that depend on the Channel for their survival and recovery.

Reflecting this environmental importance, many of the waters and islands of the Santa Barbara Channel are specially designated and protected, including the Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Channel also serves as a primary economic engine for southern California tourism, fisheries, and other industries.

Under NEPA, the presence of protected areas such as the National Park and National Marine Sanctuary are a central factor to consider in deciding whether to prepare an EIS. In areas such of this, even allegedly “minimal” environmental risks should be avoided if possible. In the draft study, BOEM and BSEE failed to adequately acknowledge the unique environmental, economic, and social importance of the Santa Barbara Channel, the risks posed to the Channel by offshore fracking and acidizing, and the avenues to avoid or minimize those risks.

The Environmental Defense Center is currently drafting a thorough comment letter to address the issues above, and much more. We encourage you to take the time to submit comments as well by March 23, 2016, and speak up to ensure the federal government goes back and accurately reviews the many significant impacts that fracking and acidizing offshore have to our environmental and economic health, our precious species who call this marine environment home, and our irreplaceable coastline.

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Brian Segee

Brian Segee is EDC’s Senior Attorney and leads the organization’s offshore fracking efforts.

Comments (1)

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    Bob Ornstein


    This is outrageous. Does the Settlement Agreement have teeth in it that can deal with what looks like superficial bad faith actions on the part of the defendant federal agencies. If not, it looks like additional lawsuits when and if the draft findings are made final will be necessary. Very unfortunate state of affairs when our federal government seems to be the enemy.


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