Refugio State Beach in California, which was sullied by a large oil spill in May, is scheduled to reopen on Friday. Over 100,000 gallons of oil leaked from a corroded pipe operated by Plains All American Pipeline on May 19, and at least 20,000 gallons ended up in the Pacific Ocean. The oil claimed the lives of over 190 birds and more than 100 mammals. Millions of dollars have been spent on clean up costs.
At the same time, another oil-related issue is brewing off the California coast: the potential for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in offshore oil wells near the city of Long Beach, which lies about 150 miles south of the spill site.
On June 24, the state's Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources approved 13 new permits for fracking off the coast of Long Beach. The permits, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation told VICE News, allow operations to move ahead at eight existing wells and drill five new ones from manmade islands.
"The state permitted these fracks in the midst of cleaning up what was the worst oil spill in California in the last 25 years, which just is a new low for the state and the [Governor Jerry] Brown administration," Kristen Monsell, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), told VICE News.
"Permitting offshore fracking, in light of that [spill], is a terrible idea," Monsell added. "I mean haven't we seen enough dead wildlife and polluted beaches. Every offshore frack increases the risk of chemical pollution, or another devastating oil spill."
Most hydraulic fracturing occurs on land in California, and offshore fracking has been "pretty limited," said Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas program manager for Clean Water Action.
Fracking involves injecting a highly pressurized mixture of water, chemicals, and sand below ground to break apart tight rock formations in order to free up oil or natural gas deposits.
"Our position on fracking in California is: We're calling for a moratorium," Grinberg told VICE News. "We don't believe that the state's current, or any of their proposed regulatory programs, adequately address the many threats and risks of fracking in California." Fracking creates the potential for chemical pollution, he said.
Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of PSE Healthy Energy, a science and policy organization, lamented the lack of quality information about offshore drilling in California. He said the data is "notoriously poor."
"It appears that [offshore] hydraulic fracturing is relatively limited — meaning a couple of operations per month or so — compared with onshore [fracking] in California, which is around 150 operations per month," Shonkoff told VICE News.
When it comes to offshore drilling, the state's jurisdiction reaches out to the three-mile mark; the waters fall under federal oversight further offshore.
Shonkoff is concerned about offshore wastewater disposal.
"I was surprised, and as an environmental and public health scientist, I am concerned about the process, especially in the federal waters, of just basically pouring produced water from formations off the side of the pad, into the ocean," Shonkoff said. That water might only be treated or monitored for chemicals in a limited way, he added.
Shonkoff contributed to a new state report that analyzes well stimulation in California. The report concludes that "only a small number of offshore wells use hydraulic fracking," and that the record keeping for drilling in federal waters is not up to California's standards.
"Whether you're onshore, and potentially even more so if you're offshore, there are accidents that can happen. There are potentially leaky wells, and things of that nature, which have an unknown amount of consequence for marine ecology," Shonkoff added.
Ash Lauth, an anti-fracking campaigner with CBD, said that the drilling off Long Beach could happen between August and December.
"I feel like if people really knew — and I think a lot of people already do — what kind of toxic practices were going on literally within the waters right off where their kids paddle board, or where they fish, people would be horrified," she said.
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