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Environmental Groups File Legal Challenges to Offshore Fracking in California

Environmentalists have considered taking legal action against federal regulators since a Truthout investigation revealed offshore fracking.

An offshore oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. About 200 wells have been fracked off the coast of California, mostly from oil platforms in waters regulated by the state. (Photo: Berardo62 / Flickr)

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Last summer, a Truthout investigation revealed that federal regulators had approved the use of fracking technology on offshore oil platforms in the Pacific Ocean. Environmental groups are now taking legal action challenging the offshore fracking approvals under federal law.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a “notice of intent to sue” with federal regulators on December 4 alleging they violated federal law by rubber-stamping approvals for fracking operations in the Santa Barbara Channel without reviewing and revising federal drilling plans and evaluating the potential impacts that fracking could have on the marine environment.

Regulators also failed to consult state coastal authorities and the public before approving the frack jobs, according to the filing.

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The Center said it would sue the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the two federal agencies in the Interior Department that regulate offshore oil and gas drilling in deep waters, in federal court if they fail to respond with a plan to suspend offshore fracking operations and come into legal compliance within 60 days of the filing.

The Center’s legal threat came just one day after Santa Barbara-based Environmental Defense Center (EDC) filed a lawsuit against BOEM and BSEE for failing to provide public or environmental reviews of 51 permits and permits modifications allowing oil companies to use fracking and acid injection techniques to stimulate oil production from old wells in the Santa Barbara Channel.

The groups have won lawsuits on similar legal grounds in the past. Spokespeople for BSEE and BOEM did not respond to requests for comment from Truthout by the time this article was published.

Little was publically known about offshore fracking until last year, when a series of investigative reports by Truthout revealed that federal regulators had approved fracking operations on oil platforms in the Pacific Ocean more than a dozen times in the past two decades, including at least four fracking jobs last year.

Environmental groups would later discover that about 200 wells have been fracked off the coast of California, mostly from oil platforms in waters regulated by the state.

The revelations caused an uproar in California, where activists organized protests against offshore fracking and the powerful California Coastal Commission launched an investigation into the so-called “enhanced recovery” techniques like fracking and acidizing, used to stimulate oil production from old wells by forcing water and chemicals below the sea floor to break up rock.

Internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to Truthout and environmental groups revealed that federal regulators had approved fracking jobs known as “frac-packs” in the Santa Barbara Channel, with simple permit modifications that were “categorically excluded” from environmental impact reviews.

In its legal filing, the Center argues that these exclusions violated federal laws requiring regulators to take a “hard look” at the environmental consequences of their actions. The EDC’s lawsuit also challenges the categorical exclusions as unlawful.

Internal documents also show that regulators scrambled to understand the scope and details of the so-called “frac-pack” operations, including the rules surrounding wastewater disposal, as they responded to information requests from Truthout and other investigators.

In the past, federal regulators and the industry have said that offshore frac-packs have a good safety record and do not require environmental impact reviews.

“Frac-pacs” are smaller than the hydraulic fracturing operations that have ignited a national controversy onshore, but environmentalists say they still pose a threat to sea otters, blue whales and other marine life in the Santa Barbara Channel, where fracking has occurred in an area that is also a proposed marine wildlife reserve.

“The federal government’s turning a blind eye as offshore fracking threatens to poison our beautiful beaches and coastal waters,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney and director of the center’s oceans program. “We need offshore fracking stopped immediately before chemical contamination or an oil spill devastates California’s coastal communities and kills sea otters and other endangered marine wildlife.”

The center points out that the oil industry has federal permission to dump 9 billion gallons of wastewater, which can include fracking chemicals, into the ocean each year. Some fracking chemicals are toxic to marine life, according to analysis conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity.

In response to petitions from environmentalists, the Environmental Protection Agency in January issued new rules requiring oil platforms in the Pacific region to disclose the volume and chemical makeup of any fracking wastewater that they dump into the ocean.

Sometimes fracking wastewater is injected back into underground wells, and underground wastewater injection has been linked to earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma and other states. Environmentalists in California remain concerned about wastewater injection both onshore and offshore, where many injection wells lie near active seismic faults.


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