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Does Offshore Fracking Put Endangered Species at Risk?

Fracking off the Santa Barbara coast was approved without a biological report on protecting endangered species.

(Photo: Arbyreed; Edited: LW / TO)

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Environmental groups in California are preparing to file lawsuits against federal regulators for allegedly approving the use of offshore fracking at 23 oil and gas platforms in sensitive Pacific waters without consulting wildlife officials about the potential harms to endangered species, such as sea otters and whales.

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper announced last week their intent to sue the two US Interior Department agencies that regulate offshore oil and gas production, alleging that regulators violated the Endangered Species Act when they decided to lift a moratorium on using offshore fracking and other “well stimulation techniques” in the Pacific. Another environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, announced on Wednesday that it would file a separate lawsuit against the agencies on similar grounds.

That decision to lift the moratorium was made in May after the regulators completed an assessment of the potential environmental impacts of offshore fracking and subsea acid washes, which are used to stimulate oil and gas production in aging offshore wells. Despite protests from environmental groups, the regulators concluded that offshore fracking is not expected to have a “significant impact” on the environment.

Offshore hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves injecting water and chemicals into aging undersea wells at high pressure to break up rock and release remaining oil and gas. Acid washes are also used to dissolve rock and make it easier for oil and gas to flow. Federal regulators allow the chemicals used in both processes, some of them toxic, to be dumped directly into the ocean if they are mixed with the wastewater that flows back from undersea wells.

Environmentalists now say that the environmental assessment of these “stimulation techniques” is incomplete because the regulators failed to consult with wildlife agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, about the potential impacts that well stimulation technologies could have on at least 25 endangered species, including whales, sea otters, fur seals, sea turtles, birds, fish and abalone.

“The government’s own analysis identifies potential threats from fracking and acidizing to many threatened and endangered species,” said Maggie Hall, a staff attorney at EDC. “Local wildlife risk exposure to toxic chemicals in [fracking flowback fluids], collisions with vessels delivering chemicals to offshore platforms, and harm caused by the heightened risk of oil spills, among other concerns.”

The groups are particularly concerned about wildlife in the Santa Barbara Channel, where offshore oil and gas platforms operate near marine wildlife protection areas, and the memory of a massive oil spill in 1969 still weighs heavily on the public mind. Offshore fracking and acid treatments extend the life of oil and gas wells, they argue, which also extends the amount of time that spills and accidents can occur before production shuts down altogether.

Environmentalists and beachgoers in California are on high alert because an oil pipeline near Santa Barbara ruptured last year, leaving beaches covered in oil and bringing back painful memories of the 1969 disaster.

“These practices will extend the life of existing oil platforms in a sensitive marine environment, which is still recovering from the May 19, 2015, Plains All American Pipeline rupture that devastated California’s coastline,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Channelkeeper. “We need information to understand the potential impacts of these practices so that appropriate measures can be implemented to protect the diverse web of marine life off our coast.”

Spokespersons for the two agencies targeted in the lawsuits, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), had not responded to a request for comment from Truthout by the time this article was published.

Ever since a series of Truthout reports revealed details about the use of fracking technology in the ocean, environmentalists have accused federal regulators of “rubber stamping” approvals for offshore fracking by making modifications to existing permits that did not require any kind of public review of the technology’s potential impacts.

Regulators and the industry argue that offshore fracking jobs are typically smaller in scale than the unconventional fracking techniques that have been so controversial onshore, and that modifications to existing offshore drilling plans are sufficient for permitting companies to use the technology.

In 2014, the EDC filed a lawsuit against BOEM and BSEE for approving 53 fracking and acidizing jobs in the Pacific without completing a public review of the potential environmental impacts. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a similar lawsuit last year. In a joint legal settlement in February, BOEM and BSEE agreed to place a moratorium on offshore fracking while it completed an environmental assessment, a draft of which was released just three weeks later.

The moratorium was lifted after a final draft was issued in May, but the EDC and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper argue that the environmental assessment is still incomplete without a “biological opinion” on protecting endangered species. That statement, they say, should be prepared by federal wildlife officials.

Environmentalists are also not convinced that mixing fracking chemicals and dangerous acids with wastewater and dumping them directly into the ocean is safe.

“The impacts of offshore fracking and acidizing have never been meaningfully analyzed,” Redmond said.

Regulators say the chemicals are diluted enough that they don’t have an impact.

Offshore fracking has been highly controversial in California, where it is unpopular among environmentalists. However, the technology has been most widely used in the Gulf of Mexico. A recent Truthout investigation found that, under the Obama administration, federal regulators approved more than 1,000 permit modifications for offshore fracking jobs in the Gulf, and virtually all of these were excluded from the kind of environmental review that environmentalists and regulators are now fighting over in California.

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