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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 26th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 51 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 51

Environmental shuffle: After the passage of SB 4, questions still remain about fracking regulations in California


Whether offshore oil platforms such as Irene are able to discharge leftover drilling fluids into ocean waters is dependent on state or federal jurisdiction. In state waters, discharge is illegal, but in federal waters, it’s allowed.

There was a time when state agencies didn’t track oil-well stimulation practices such as hydraulic fracturing, and California is still in regulation limbo regarding the practice, but the red tape started unrolling for oil companies with passage of state Senate Bill 4 last year.

Fracking is nothing new in California or off its coast; it’s a practice that’s gone on in the oil industry for six decades. However, increased scrutiny of the practice, the high-and-going-higher price of oil, and new waves of technology that could help tap the billions of gallons of oil reserves held in the Monterey Shale formation have upped the ante on government regulators.

There are now interim regulations governing fracking and a set of draft regulations waiting for a second round of public circulation that environmentalists say are both toothless. The California Department of Conservation is in the process of reading through more than 100,000 comments submitted on the draft fracking rules, said Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the California Natural Resources Agency at the Department of Conservation.

“California has one [drilling] standard, and it’s really as high as the standards in other states are for hydraulic fracturing,” Marshall said in a presentation to the California Coastal Commission on Feb. 12. “We found that what we did not have was actual reporting of practices like well stimulation, like hydraulic fracturing jobs, like acid matrix stimulation, acid fracturing. So one of the things SB 4 sought to do was make sure we do have information about some of those individual treatments.”

SB 4 outlines reporting requirements, environmental responsibilities, and how to be a good neighbor for oil companies practicing well stimulation. Those rules are scheduled to go into effect in 2015. The new rules will cover drilling onshore in California and in state waters off the coast, but they won’t cover drilling in federal waters.

Previously unknown-to-the-public instances of fracking, acid matrix stimulation, and acid fracking in federal waters were outlined in recent reports put out by Santa Barbara’s Environmental Defense Center in late 2013 and early 2014. The reports also state that new fracks are approved in federal waters for 2014.

While some regulatory agencies were in the loop on offshore fracking and permitting in federal waters, some were not. One such agency was the California Coastal Commission, whose main reason for existing is to protect the state’s coast.

Environmental groups called for a moratorium on offshore fracking in response to Environmental Defense Center reports and so has U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara). Questions about which government agencies have jurisdiction over wells drilled in federal waters and what can be done about oil industry transparency spurred the Coastal Commission to address the issue at its February meeting in Shell Beach.

“The public is concerned that they don’t know whose jurisdiction is whose; who’s doing what in the government regulatory land, even begging the question of whether some of the regulators knew who’s doing what in regulatory land,” Marshall said during his presentation.

The commission was able to confirm that in the last 20 years, there have been 13 instances of fracking in federal waters at three different oil platforms. A well at Platform Hidalgo, off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base, was fracked in 1997; nine fracks were performed on eight wells from Platform Gilda, off the coast of Ventura, between 1994 and 2002; and Platform Gail, also off the coast of Ventura, has two fracked wells—one in 1992 and one in 2010. The commission also confirmed that acid stimulation has occurred in some of those wells and that four new fracks are pending for Platform Gilda.

Hydraulic fracturing is the practice of injecting a mix of chemicals, water, and sometimes solids such as sand into the earth at a pressure so high it cracks underground rock formations, enabling oil to flow out of them. Acid matrix stimulation is an acid mix that’s pushed into the ground—not at high pressures, like fracking—and it etches the rock, creating a more permeable surface for oil to flow out of. Acid fracking is exactly what it sounds like—using an acid mix to fracture and etch rock formations by shooting it into the earth at high pressure.

Alison Dettmer, California Coastal Commission deputy director of the North Coast District Office, said the commission couldn’t place a ban or moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in federal waters. Dettmer added that the commission’s job, as outlined in the Coastal Act, is to review projects on a case-by-case basis and make sure they’re consistent with the Coastal Act.

In her presentation to the commission’s board on Feb. 12, Dettmer said there wasn’t an immediate need for concern about drilling practices in state waters, but that’s not the case farther out to sea.

 “The impact of offshore hydraulic fracturing is not well known,” Dettmer said. “Although discharge into the ocean is prohibited in state waters, it is allowed and practiced in federal waters.”

She added that the commission’s concern with the practice in federal waters includes migration of contaminants into freshwater, seismic impacts from fracturing, water toxicity, and the impacts of added boat traffic.

The response to those concerns and more is the goal of an independent scientific study that’s being conducted on fracking in accordance with SB 4. Along with the study, Dettmer also discussed the potential for a commission-held public workshop on fracking, and how to make sure the commission gets all the information it needs on projects in the future.

Thus far, what have slipped through the regulatory cracks are updates made on offshore project permits, which the commission wasn’t privy to. The commission is working with the Department of the Interior to get notification of changes to projects in federal waters.

Commissioner Martha McClure said she thinks getting all regulatory agencies to the same table will help plug some of the information holes. She also called out the Environmental Protection Agency for being conflicted in its authoritative capacity—for regulating well drilling, but not drilling practices.

“You know, there’s the devil we know and the devil we don’t know, and, in this case, we don’t know either one,” McClure said during the meeting.


Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at

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