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Oil Companies Are Quietly Fracking the Seabed Off the California Coast

And they've been doing it behind the state's back.

by Michael Byrne
Aug 3 2013, 8:08pm

When we talk about fracking and its impacts on human health and the environment, we very often talk about groundwater. Can we somehow drill holes deep underground and blast apart bedrock with high pressure water—in solution with a long list of "bonus" chemicals—without contaminating the water table? It seems unlikely. And testing currently being performed off California's coast adds another layer to the contamination query—what if the entire operation takes place underwater, on the seabed, perhaps right near the site of a 1969 oil spill that unleashed 3 million barrels of crude into the ocean?

Granted there aren't too many homes with wells on the sea floor, but no one seems to be able to produce any actual research on potential harmful effects of fracking fluids on the undersea environment and, as with land-based fracking, any number of chemicals included in fracking activities remain top secret "trade secrets." What's more, regulators have exempted the chemicals used in offshore fracking from clean water laws. That means that the oil companies involved don't even have to pretend to care about the impacts of fracking fluids released during operations.

This sounds bad enough, but there's been an ugly veil of secrecy over offshore fracking operations near California as well, lifted somewhat only recently via hundreds of documents released by the federal government to the Associated Press. California coastal regulators didn't even know that fracking was occuring offshore, thanks to the activities occuring within what's technically federal jurisdiction. "It wasn't on our radar before, and now it is," Alison Dettmer, a deputy director of the California Coastal Commision, says in a statement. That's a fairly uncomfrotable notion: the EPA and oil companies working behind California's back on oil exploration with huge potential to harm that state's coastline waters.

The total number of fracking operations on the Pacific seabed appears to be 12, but there could be more. These aren't new wells, but rather fracking techniques used in the hope of reviving old wells. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the branch of the EPA that handles offshore drilling, has yet to properly sort through all of its well files, leaving the number somewhat ambiguous. Which is absolutely baffling and has to make one wonder about BSEE oversight in general, though more recent emails show the organization at least paying more attention, or encouraging it anyhow. In one email, Jaron Ming, the Pacific regional director of the BSEE, urged employees "to pay close attention to any (drilling applications) that we receive and let me know if you believe any of them would be considered a 'frac job."

For now, the Environmental Defense Center is pushing a moratorium on offshore fracking activities until more research can be done on potential environmental effects. Indeed, one possible effect is fairly ominous: breaking the seal on an old well bore, allowing oil to escape into the ocean. A spill, in other words, with the potential to wash up on California's shores.

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to pay close attention to any (drilling applications) that we receive and let me know if you believe any of them would be considered a 'frac job.'"

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"It wasn't on our radar before, and now it is," said Alison Dettmer, a deputy director at the California Coastal Commission.

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