Over the past several weeks, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Surfrider Foundation, and Truthout have attempted to manufacture controversy over the fact that oil and natural gas producers have used the long-established practice of hydraulic fracturing off the coast of California. Actually, the story that the Associated Press “broke” at the beginning of August wasn’t very shocking: federal regulators permitted hydraulic fracturing offshore at least twelve times over the course of twenty five years with no risk to the environment. The fact is, producers have been using hydraulic fracturing offshore for several decades, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has permitted it.
But a story about producers being permitted to do what they’ve been safely doing for decades is not much of a story. So,radical environmental groups have manufactured “news” by inaccurately claiming that producers are operating in a completely unregulated environment and carelessly dumping chemicals into the sea.
Case in point is the letter that CBD, along with its allies, sent to the California Coastal Commission, which contains the following hyperbole-laden statement:
During fracking, a significant amount of the fracking fluid returns to the surface and is either discharged into the ocean or transported for onshore ground injection. At sea, these chemicals enter the marine ecosystem. And on land, underground injection of fracking fluids has the potential to contaminate groundwater
Unfortunately, the AP took CBD at its word:
Federal regulators thus far have exempted the chemical fluids used in offshore fracking from the nation’s clean water laws, allowing companies to release fracking fluid into the sea without filing a separate environmental impact report or statement looking at the possible effects. That exemption was affirmed this year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the internal emails reviewed by the AP.
Actually, several agencies regulate hydraulic fracturing offshore. The fact that CBD ignored the scientific evidence of the safety of and regulations on hydraulic fracturing isn’t surprising considering that this is the same organization whose executive director admitted that the “key to our success” is ignoring science.
BSEE is charged with regulating all aspects of hydraulic fracturing (when it occurs offshore) because of its expertise in oil and gas development. BSEE affirms that it closely monitors the activity: “to the limited extent that [hydraulic fracturing] is used offshore, each application is unique and receives a thorough examination by trained experts.” BSEE requires permits for all offshore drilling in federal waters and carefully reviews each application to drill or modify a well, including the information about any planned hydraulic fracturing.
Despite repeated claims from groups such as the CBD and EDC, oil and gas producers have never been exempted from the Clean Water Act (a fact that the U.S. Government Accountability Office has confirmed). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has jurisdiction over discharge of wastewater through its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, part of the Clean Water Act, as well as intake of seawater for use in operations. Further, the federal NPDES permitting process is extremely rigorous, especially for offshore drilling.
For wells within the first three miles of the coast, in California state waters, the California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) requires permits prior to drilling or modifying wells. For offshore leases, the State Lands Commission (SLC) also requires a separate approval. DOGGR is also currently drafting new rules that will further regulate hydraulic fracturing specifically, and these new rules will also apply to hydraulic fracturing in state waters. Meanwhile, the State Water Quality Control Board is responsible for the NPDES program in state waters, and it is required both to have a program at least as rigorous as the federal EPA and to ensure that ocean water meets the stringent quality standards the Board has set.
The California Coastal Commission also has regulatory control over this zone, and it reviews oil and gas development plans as part of a local coastal program (that is developed with the city or county). These local coastal programs typically include land use plans that specify where various types of development, like oil and gas, are appropriate, and whether any specific precautions are necessary in each zone. The Commission reviews these plans at least every five years.
The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing offshore, whether in state or federal waters, is a well-understood and highly-regulated activity.
Every time extremists and activists cry wolf and manufacture controversies, it distracts regulators from doing their jobs.The suggestion that offshore oil and gas development, including the use of hydraulic fracturing, isn’t regulated, permitted and monitored is patently and demonstrably false. In both federal and state waters, multiple agencies regulate oil and gas activities. Among those agencies, the California Coastal Commission is responsible for determining the types of development that are appropriate for coastal zones. However, permitting day-to-day oil and gas operations should continue to be left to the federal and state agencies with the purpose and necessary expertise to oversee these activities. As a first step, the Coastal Commission staff should reach out to the regulators at the SLC and DOGGR who are familiar with regulating oil and gas operations to get educated on the realities behind these operations.
This is yet another case of activists using falsehoods for no other reason than to try to scare the public. Happily, throughout the legislative and regulatory process surrounding hydraulic fracturing, Californians have shown that they understand environmental protection and economic development have coexisted for decades and can continue to coexist. They have not bought in to the hysteria being peddled by those who are on an ideological mission to eliminate our home-grown energy industry, even though some of our friends in the media have too often given opponents a forum to make their baseless claims.