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Saturday, May 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens Fight Fracking Offshore California

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - Environmentalists claim the federal government approved 51 offshore drilling permits that will allow fracking in the Santa Barbara Channel, without the environmental studies required by law.

The Environmental Defense Center sued the Department of the Interior, its agencies the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on Wednesday in Federal Court.

The two bureaus that regulate offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters were created in October 2011 after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Ocean Energy Management is tasked with conducting environmental review, Environmental Enforcement with issuing permits and ensuring the drilling operations comply with safety regulations.

The Environmental Defense Center claims the bureaus are shirking their duties by issuing drilling permits for wells in the Outer Continental Shelf that use acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing without analyzing the environmental impacts, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Outer Continental Shelf refers to underwater lands that belong to the United States and are beyond states' jurisdictions. For California, the shelf extends 3 international nautical miles seaward from the baseline of the territorial seas.

"Offshore well stimulation methods including acid well stimulation and hydraulic fracturing pose numerous environmental risks to coastal and marine natural resources," the complaint states. "These risks include impacts to water quality associated with discharge of toxic chemicals found in well stimulation fluids, and impacts to air quality including greenhouse gas emissions.

"In addition, such discharges pose unstudied risks to many threatened and endangered species, including blue whale, fin whale, humpback whale, and southern sea otters, and risks to other fish, birds, and aquatic organisms including invertebrate species that comprise the base of the food chain. These methods also present the potential for spills related to accidental release of chemicals during transport to and from oil and gas platforms, from chemicals stores on platforms, or from direct discharge to the marine environment."

The Environmental Defense Center claims there are particular "geologic hazards associated with purposely fracturing the geologic formation and additional fluid injection in seismically active areas. Finally, there are significant risks regarding whether well casings have been designed to safely accommodate the increased pressures associated with offshore well stimulation activities, and whether offshore platforms and wells have been designed for the extended life associated with well stimulation activities."

The Environmental Defense Center challenges 51 permit approvals and modifications issued in the past 18 months. It claims the defendants approved them without NEPA analysis or public participation.

In fact, the group says, the government refuses to let the public participate in the permitting process and will not hand over documents relating to permit approvals or permit modifications without a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The permits are for several offshore drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, a roughly 70-nautical-mil- long and 24-nautical-mile-wide stretch of Pacific Ocean that separates coastal cities such as Ventura and Santa Barbara from the Channel Islands. The islands were designated as a national park in 1980.

In addition to being a scenic location that attracts thousands of tourists, the Channel is home to several threatened and endangered species, including sea otters, sea lions, porpoises, and many species of whales.

It also has many oil fields. In fact, it was the site of the nation's first offshore oil spill, in January 1967, which was partly blamed on lack of federal oversight, according to the complaint.

The Environmental Defense Center says that there are 22 offshore platforms in the Channel. It estimates that at least 15 of them have used hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the past 20 years.

Fracking involves high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into dense shale rock formations. The pressure makes it easier to extract oil and gas.

Drilling operations in the Channel also use acid well stimulation, or "acidizing," a mixture of hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acid injected at high pressures into rock formations to fracture them to get access to their oil and gas, much like fracking, according to the complaint.

"After the acid treatment, the used acid, chemicals, oil, and sediments are pumped out in a process called backflush. This backflush, like frac flowback, is either re-injected or discharged directly to the marine environment," the complaint states.

The Environmental Defense Center says this is worrisome because hydrofluoric acid is an "extremely hazardous substance" that can damage the lungs, corrode steel and form a "poisonous vapor cloud that stays near the ground" once it reaches 67 degrees.

Despite the "inherent environmental and public health risks" of using fracking and acidizing in offshore operations, which are largely unstudied, the government has not conducted environmental analysis addressing these concerns, the group contends.

The development and production plans for the offshore platforms are decades out of date, and do not include NEPA-complaint analysis of fracking and acidizing. And even if they did contain such analysis, it would be "outdated and insufficient to address the risks and impacts of well stimulations methods as they are utilized today," the complaint states.

Connie Gillette, Deputy Chief of Public Affairs and Media Relations Manager for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told Courthouse News that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The Environmental Defense Center seeks declaratory judgment that the permit approvals and modifications violate NEPA by ignoring evidence of significant environmental impacts of fracking and acidizing and failing to do adequate environmental analysis of these methods.

It wants the government enjoined from enforcing the permits issued and from issuing any more approvals or modifications until the government complies with NEPA regulations.

The group is represented by in-house counsel Brian Segee in Ventura and co-counsel Margaret Morgan Hall in Santa Barbara.

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