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Federal Agencies Agree to Require California Offshore Fracking Reviews

In a court case still requiring approval by a federal judge, federal agencies and environmental groups have agreed to a settlement calling for reviews of the proposed use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in drilling offshore California. The agreements were filed in a federal court in Los Angeles last Friday.

Groups led by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) had filed lawsuits challenging past approval of the use of fracking offshore Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Under terms of the agreements, the deals would require Department of Interior (DOI) agencies to determine whether well stimulation techniques such as fracking threaten water quality and marine life. No permits would be granted until the assessments are completed.

"If approved [by a federal judge], this would mark the first time anywhere in the nation that the two relevant agencies, [DOI’s] Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), will be required to evaluate the significant risks that these practices pose to water and air quality," said the EDC's notice on its website.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) said that the petroleum industry has operated safely in California for decades, working closely with regulators and other officials. "The industry is committed to safe, environmentally sound operations everywhere in the offshore environment, including hydraulic fracturing and acidizing offshore California, which have been used there for decades without incident," Reheis-Boyd said.

EDC has emphasized that the well stimulation practices have been used offshore for decades with what it called no environmental review. The groups alleged the lack of regulation based on a public records search.

The federal agency review spelled out in the agreements is mandated to be completed by the end of May, and with that analysis a determination is to be made about whether more analysis is needed after that.

"This settlement is an important first step in addressing the use of dangerous well stimulation techniques, including fracking and acidizing from oil platforms located off California's coastline," said Brian Segee, an EDC senior attorney.

Fracking's use offshore California was brought to the general public's attention in 2013 (see Shale Daily, Aug. 19, 2013) when EDC and various news organizations revealed the use after a Freedom of Information Act research effort.

Under the settlement, BOEM and BSEE have committed to several actions:

  • Preparing programmatic environmental assessments (PEA), and withholding approval of drilling permits until the PEAs are completed;
  • If the PEA shows significant environmental impacts could result, more thorough environmental reviews will be required; and
  • BSEE will develop an electronic filing and public notification website for offshore drilling.

“These settlements are only applicable to a narrow band of operations offshore California, and do not apply in the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else," said a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute (API), which intervened in the lawsuit.

“While API had intervened in both cases subject to the settlement agreements filed, API and its members are not parties to the settlement agreements.  We do not agree that additional environmental review is necessary, and we certainly do not endorse the need for yet another unjustified offshore permit moratorium.” 

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