Criticism of New California Fracking Assessment

Californian sea otter mother with nursing baby

By MarEx 2016-02-23 17:50:17

Three weeks after agreeing to take a hard look at offshore fracking’s threats to California’s coast, the Obama administration has released a draft environmental assessment from the Department of the Interior. Environmental group Center for Biological Diversity says that it fails to answer key questions about the risks of this controversial oil-extraction technique.

The draft analysis was required by a legal settlement, filed January 29, that resolved a Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit over fracking from offshore platforms in the wildlife-rich Santa Barbara Channel. That settlement required a halt to offshore fracking in federal waters off California, pending the Department of Interior’s completion of a final environmental review. 

The draft assessment fails to adequately analyze the impacts of water and air pollution from offshore fracking and the increased risk of earthquakes, accidents and toxic spills caused by this inherently dangerous practice, says the Center in a statement.

Instead, the document proposes to let oil companies resume fracking off California’s coast, and even allow the industry to go back to dumping fracking chemicals mixed with wastewater into the ocean.

“It’s deeply disappointing to see the Obama administration proposing to let oil companies resume offshore fracking when it poses such a toxic threat to California’s marine life and coastal communities,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center attorney. “The Interior Department is blowing off its legal responsibility to carefully consider the risks and harms of offshore fracking. Instead of protecting California’s wildlife and coastal communities from fracking chemicals and oil-spill risk, federal officials seem keen to resume rubber-stamping this toxic technique as quickly as possible.”

The Center’s lawsuit, filed last year, challenged the Interior Department’s practice of rubber-stamping fracking off California’s coast without engaging the public or analyzing fracking’s threats to ocean ecosystems, coastal communities and whales and other marine life.

Yet Interior’s assessment provides only a cursory analysis of offshore fracking’s biggest threats to California’s coastal environment, says the Center. The analysis also ignores the cumulative impacts of offshore fracking on marine life and coastal communities already threatened by other industrial activities in the ocean, including other offshore oil and gas drilling activities and commercial shipping.

Oil companies have fracked at least 200 wells in state and federal waters off Long Beach, Seal Beach, Huntington Beach and in the wildlife-rich Santa Barbara Channel. Offshore fracking blasts vast volumes of water mixed with chemicals beneath the seafloor, at pressures high enough to fracture rocks.

The oil industry has federal permission to dump more than nine billion gallons of wastewater, including chemical-laden fracking fluid, into the ocean off California’s coast every year. At least 10 fracking chemicals routinely used in offshore fracking in California could kill or harm a broad variety of marine species, including sea otters and fish, Center scientists have found.

The legal settlement requires Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to analyze the environmental dangers of offshore fracking and acidization under the National Environmental Policy Act. The settlement also prohibits federal officials from authorizing these practices in federal waters near California until that analysis is concluded.

The public has 30 days to review and comment on the “draft programmatic environmental assessment.”

“The Interior Department has a legal obligation to take a much harder look at the risks of offshore fracking,” Monsell said. “Our coast can’t take another oil spill or a deluge of toxic fracking chemicals. If federal officials thoroughly analyze the risks to California’s fragile marine environments, they’ll have to stop authorizing this toxic technique.”

Fracking and other unconventional production techniques, such as fracture acidizing, pose an urgent threat to marine wildlife and coastal communities, says the Center. To get more oil out of old wells, oil companies use toxic chemicals at high pressures to force oil out of subsea rock, producing large volumes of waste contaminated with chemicals that are known carcinogens or pose other health hazards. Using new fracking technologies on aging infrastructure also increases the risk of accidents like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. More than 200 wells have been fracked off the coast of California, using toxic pollutants that cause cancer, genetic mutations and other harmful impacts, says the Center.