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Articles

Confusion reigns over fracking in coastal waters

Aug. 15, 2013
Kimberly Rivers, OVN correspondent

Federal agencies responsible for overseeing oil and gas operators in California’s coastal waters are not aware of hydraulic fracturing activities that may have taken place there, according to documents obtained through a recent Freedom of Information Act request.

In addition, at least four agencies could have authority over these operations, but jurisdictional boundaries are cloudy even at the highest levels within the agencies.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the controversial well-completion technique that blasts chemicals, water and sand into underground rock formations to release the oil or gas trapped in them.

Federal waters are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Those two agencies oversee oil and gas production in waters starting three nautical miles off the coast. The State Lands Commission (SLC), in partnership with the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), oversees the waters within the three-mile mark.

The California Coastal Commission, which regulates use of land and water in the coastal zone, added offshore fracking to its Thursday meeting agenda, in response to an Aug. 4 Associated Press article that reported that fracking has occurred off the California coast at least 12 times since the 1990s and that a new project was approved in March for a privately held oil and gas company to frack about 10 miles off the Ventura County coast. Although Coastal Commission jurisdiction extends only three miles off the coast, it can assert its authority if it decides work beyond the three-mile mark affects marine mammals or water quality.

“At the time of the oil spill on Platform Gail in 2010, there were no fracking operations being conducted and the claim that fracking had been performed in 2009 is inaccurate,” wrote James Watson, then-director of the BSEE, in a Jan. 11 letter. The letter was written in response to a public comment received by the agency in late 2012 regarding offshore fracking.

In the same letter, Watson stated “There have only been two occasions when hydraulic fracturing was utilized … in the federal waters off the California coast.” Those occurred in 1992, when Venoco fracked wells at Platform Gail (which is 10 miles off the coast of Oxnard) and in 1997, when Chevron attempted to frack a well at Platform Hidalgo, which is about six miles off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Regarding the failed attempt on Platform Hidalgo, Watson wrote, “They were only able to inject 62,622 gallons of frac fluid with 29,736 lbs. of proppant.” He wrote that production actually decreased after the frack job, so, “In June 1997 an enzyme breaker was injected into the reservoir (well),” which led to restoration of “steady production.”

Although Watson stated in his letter that there was no fracking off California waters in 2009, Venoco spokeswoman Lisa M. Rivas stated in an Aug. 7 email to the Ojai Valley News that “Venoco did hydraulic fracturing in late 2009 and early 2010, but we did not get the results we hoped for so there are no plans to do any more. The well (that was hydraulically fractured) was on Platform Gail.”

Responding to questions regarding the discrepancy between BSEE and Venoco about offshore fracking operations in 2009-10, Nicholas Pardi, BSEE spokesman, told the Ojai Valley News Thursday, “The letter you are referring to was a draft letter that was not written or reviewed by Director Watson.”

Upon receipt of the public complaint sent in late 2012 about offshore fracking in 2009, BSEE staff members corresponded via email among themselves regarding what agency had jurisdiction and the BSEE’s policies on hydraulic fracturing. “Has there been an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) to assess the environmental consequences of fracking on the OCS (Outer Continental Shelf)? How can we begin to review permit requests without that?” wrote Thomas Lillie, BSEE chief of staff, on Dec. 17, 2012, to Walter Cruickshank, BSEE deputy director.

The following day, Lillie wrote, “Has fracking ever been considered in a five-year plan and been assessed in any NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] document for the area in question (is it even allowed? a BOEM issue); if so, has Venoco or any other operator ever submitted an application for a permit to conduct fracking?” Lillie stated those issues need to be addressed in order to respond to the public complaint they received.

“Our leases were entered into during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when fracking was not really happening,” said Sheri Pemberton, chief of external affairs and legislative liaison for the State Lands Commission. “We are not seeing any new leases, there is not really any new drilling. But yes, if there were new requests, or changes to drilling — for anything different that was not contained in the original lease, then the SLC will review it.” She explained that an operator is supposed to apply to the SLC if they are going to do anything new with a well — and she confirmed that that includes the “spectrum” of processes that can be called hydraulic fracturing, if it was not covered in the original lease.

“Our legal team is not aware of any applications to the State Lands Commission in advance of fracking,” said Patrick Sullivan, media specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We do believe that’s a necessary step and would help protect the state’s air and water from the risks of fracking.”

Last week, state legislators, including Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) and state senators Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) and Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) called on the Coastal Commission “to exercise its jurisdiction and review all previously approved and future federal fracking permits for their impact on human health and safety, marine life and water quality.”

Concerns about offshore fracking were highlighted this week in a joint letter by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and the Surfrider Foundation, calling for public notification and environmental review of offshore fracking operations. “The state and the public need to know about fracking before it occurs, and have an opportunity to voice their concerns,” said Brian Segee, staff attorney for the EDC, the environmental law group that uncovered offshore fracking during investigations in 2011.

“Offshore fracking poses a deadly threat to California’s fragile marine environment,” said Miyoko Sakashita, the Oceans Program director with the CBD, in a press release sent Wednesday. “This dangerous practice is being used in our oceans with very little government knowledge or oversight.”

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