We know that fracking is a risky process on dry land. Fracking produces toxic wastewater, risks groundwater and surface land and water contamination, and that companies refuse to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process or composition of wastewater. Offshore, the potential for things to go wrong are even higher – any failure, spill or well blowout would immediately result in pollution in coastal waters.
That's why it was so shocking to Californians to learn that fracking has been underway for years off the coast. Most fracking in California occurs in Kern County in the Central Valley and the LA basin. In fact, the coast is the one region that most Californians thought would be protected from new oil and gas development. Because a 1969 oil spill fouled the waters of the California coast, new oil leases have been suspended for decades. Even more shocking: the California Coastal Commission, the agency that has an obligation to protect California's marine environment and authority to prevent any activity that may do harm to the coast, had no idea that oil companies are fracking off California's coast.
The news broke on July 25 when Truthout's Mike Ludwig and later the Associated Press found at least 12 offshore frack jobs had been performed since the 1990's. Both the State and Federal agencies had left the Coastal Commission in the dark; the media reports came as a result of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The first Coastal Commission hearing since the media coverage was held on Thursday, August 15, and began with deputy director Allison Dettmer asking “Why did we not know that fracking occurs offshore?” Dettmer also responded to letters sent from seven state legislators, and another letter sent by the Environmental Defense Center, Surfrider Foundation, and Center for Biological Diversity, pledging to launch the investigation that the organizations had called for.
According to Dettmer's preliminary report, the Coastal Commission to date does not know how many wells have been fracked off the coast. Part of the problem is that there are two jurisdictions involved. In State waters, where there are 4 platforms and 5 oil and gas producing islands that have been producing for decades, DOGGR has apparently reviewed and administratively approved individual well drilling plans, some of which include frack packs in older wells in the Long Beach and Huntington Beach area. Allison goes on to say: “We haven't been notified of these over the years. No operator has applied for a coastal development permit.”
Three miles offshore, the state's jurisdiction ends and federal jurisdiction kicks in, governed by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). There are 23 of these platforms, and the Coastal Commission has authority to review and potentially prevent permitting of activities that may do harm to the California coast. 13 of the platforms had been reviewed by Coastal Commission under this authority. But, BSEE decided that fracking these old offshore wells would only be a 'minor' revision in the plan; whereas BSEE only sends the Coastal Commission 'major' revisions to the plan.
After hearing public comments, Commissioner Jana Zimmer spoke, encouraging local governments to follow the example of Santa Barbara County's new ordinance requiring permitting for fracking that could affect the coast through its Coastal Development Plan. If they do not, then she said that the operation would be “operating without the benefit of a permit. another way of saying that is that it is an illegal operation.”
It is uncertain what will happen when new fracking technology is applied to decades-old wells. According to the industry's own data, after 30 years, oil and gas wells have a 60% chance of failure, and 1 in 20 wells fail instantly. One of the speakers at the hearing was former Santa Cruz mayor Celia Scott, who said that “One agency that will not duck when it comes to an environmental issue is the Coastal Commission”. For the sake of the California coast, let's hope so.