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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on March 9th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 1 [ Submit a Story ]
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Federal bureau says offshore fracking doesn't impact environment; Environmental Defense Center says report falls short


Offshore well stimulation treatments, including acidizing and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), do not significantly impact environments in the Santa Barbara Channel’s federal waters, according to a draft environmental review released in February by federal agencies. The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) responded critically to the review, claiming it “falls short in several fundamental respects.”

Offshore well stimulation techniques inject sand, water, and chemicals into rock formations to fracture or dissolve them and withdraw gas. The practice has been criticized in recent years for the lack of research on its environmental impacts and because it tends to occur in quiet operations.

Offshore well stimulation techniques, such as fracking, are common along the Santa Barbara Channel and have drawn recent criticism for lack of research and transparency. A draft environmental review by federal agencies claims fracking doesn’t harm the environment, but not everyone is buying it.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) conducted the review per the terms of two settlement agreements, one with the EDC and another with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“There were two environmental groups that felt that we hadn’t done an adequate job of reviewing and approving those well treatment and stimulation processes,” BSEE Press Secretary Greg Julian told the Sun. “Essentially they wanted an environmental assessment of the impact of those treatments.”

But John Romero, BOEM public affairs officer, said the assessment actually began before the settlements required it.

“Recognizing that there was a real and increasing concern over this issue of fracking offshore, we decided about a year ago to embark on an environmental review,” Romero told the Sun. A draft of the review was completed and made available for public comment on Feb. 22. The comment period closes March 23.

Rick Yard, regional supervisor of BOEM’s Pacific Region Office of the Environment, said the review focused on areas of concern addressed in letters, forums, news stories, and information requests. BSEE and BOEM conducted the internal work on the review, while Argonne National Laboratory helped compile the assessment to meet standards given by the Center for Environmental Equality and the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The released draft of the review focuses on the following potentially affected environments:

  • • Geology and seismicity.
  • • Air quality and meteorology.
  • • Water quality.
  • • Ecological resources.
  • • Recreational and commercial fishing.
  • • Areas of special concern (including marine sanctuaries, parks, wildlife refuges, estuarine research reserves, estuary programs, military use areas, and state protected areas).
  • • Archaeological resources.
  • • Recreation and tourism.
  • • Environmental justice.
  • • Socioeconomics.

For each of these areas of concern, the draft preliminarily concluded that well stimulation treatments are not expected to have significant impact.

The Santa Barbara Channel is known as a popular site for offshore well stimulation techniques, but BSEE’s Julian said offshore fracking occurs less frequently in that area than people think because rock formations in the area are already very permeable.

“The rock out there in the outer continental shelf is already very porous,” he said. “It’s very unlikely to need to do any well stimulation treatments.”

Yard said he found the no-impact results of the environmental review unsurprising: When fracking does occur, he said, it uses low enough pressure and chemical concentrations not to significantly disturb the surrounding environment. 

Additionally, discharges from fracking are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Yard said. The EPA is responsible for approving the discharge of any fluids from ocean platforms, and the agency issues permits to the federal offshore oil and gas facilities in Southern California.

“In the context of the ocean, there’s a lot of water diluting any of those discharges,” he said. “The analysis would show, and we link to some studies that show, that there is no kind of major impact related to discharges of any fluids from the platform, by any means.”

EDC senior attorney Brian Segee said this conclusion is hard to believe.

“It defies common sense,” Segee said. “You can debate the extent of impacts or the scope of impacts, but to say that doing offshore fracking and acidizing with the chemical transportation, the chemical disposal, the acknowledged discharge of billions of gallons of water and fluid into the environment—that it has no environmental impact on everything from marine animals to environmental quality is simply not credible.”

Segee said “trade secrets” leave gaps in public knowledge of the chemicals used in offshore well stimulation techniques.

“We don’t know the full extent of the chemicals, and a lot of the chemicals we do know that are used don’t have a lot of study of the impacts on the natural environment,” he said. “With such large uncertainty, what’s needed right now is further investigation.”

Further investigation depends on how the public comment period turns out. Once the comment period ends, Yard said BSEE and BOEM will review the comments and adjust the review accordingly.

“In every case where substantive issues about environmental impacts are raised that we didn’t address, we will address those by revising our document,” he said.

BSEE’s Julian said if those comments call for further research, the agencies will oblige. 

“All of the public comments are evaluated and taken into consideration in the final assessment of this environmental review,” Julian said. “We haven’t drawn our conclusions yet. We have the initial results, but based on the input we get, it will be adjusted and then a final assessment will be published.”

This final assessment is due May 28. Permits for offshore fracking have been halted until then.

Segee said the EDC would prefer that the federal agencies redo their whole draft, but because of the tight deadline, that’s unlikely.

“We think that a full environmental impact statement should be done, and those statements are supposed to be done when there’s any potential of a significant environmental impact,” Segee said. “We need a more detailed look into these acknowledged areas of uncertainty, and rework the analysis to not have these unsupportable conclusions of no impacts.”

Anyone who would like to submit comments may do so through March 23 at

Staff Writer Brenna Swanston can be reached at

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