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All Fracked Up

Politicians Want Channel Drilling Techniques Investigated, but Who’s in Charge?


Thursday, August 15, 2013

In the two weeks since Truthout revealed that the controversial oil-extraction practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, had been permitted for offshore rigs in the Santa Barbara Channel ​— ​news more broadly disseminated by the Associated Press a week later ​— ​many politicians are demanding that more extensive environmental reviews be required.

Santa Barbara’s State Assemblymember Das Williams was first to call for “greater scrutiny” in an August 6 letter to the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. That letter was signed by, among other Sacramento lawmakers, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who, on August 8, also sent a letter to the state’s Coastal Commission, which, she believes, “has a vital role to play in determining whether offshore fracking is in the best interests of our coastline.” And this week, Congressmember Lois Capps jumped into the discussion, as well, getting briefed by the related agency officials and requesting that they respond to the state legislators’ letters. “It is imperative that we fully understand the activities of oil and gas companies and how they impact our land, water, and public health,” said Capps. “Protecting our coastal waters has always been a top priority for me, and I will continue working on this issue so it is properly addressed.”

Along with other discoveries, Truthout’s report revealed recently permitted offshore hydraulic fracturing by the Ventura-based company DCOR, LLC, confirmed that Venoco, Inc. had done so in the past, and uncovered correspondence between regulatory officials wondering whether further reviews should be required. Since then, The Santa Barbara Independent has been in touch with an alphabet-soup-load of federal and state agencies to figure out who’s really in charge of what.

On a federal level, there are three main agencies involved. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) ​— ​one of the many federal agencies created when the Minerals Management Service was disbanded after the Deepwater Horizon disaster ​— ​is responsible for issuing offshore drilling leases and all of the big-picture environmental studies that are required to do so. But hydraulic fracturing doesn’t tend to get on the radar until an application to drill or to modify a drilling permit is filed.

Those go to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE, pronounced “bessie”), which is home to the engineers who evaluate each proposed drilling operation for safety, environmental, geohazard, or other hazards, as well as the inspectors who make sure companies are following the rules. According to an agency official, BSEE has no plans to revamp its rules on hydraulic fracturing for offshore rigs, because, already, “each application is unique and receives a thorough examination.”

Charged with protecting water quality and upholding the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency oversees what happens to substances when they get outside of a drilling operation, whether intentionally or otherwise. To do so, it issues National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits that, according to a statement, “are structured to ensure that all fluids used in the drilling and production process will not adversely impact water quality.” The EPA is currently reviewing its policies on how hydraulic fracturing affects drinking water across the country, but, like BSEE, is not actively reviewing offshore fracking policies on a separate track.

On a state level, where direct control only extends to three miles offshore, the State Lands Commission functions like BOEM, issuing leases for drilling operations, whereas the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR, pronounced “dogger”) acts like BSEE. DOGGR places a large emphasis on casing and cementing of wells to prevent spillage, and the requirements for offshore are “more stringent” than for onshore, according to the state’s oil and gas supervisor Tim Kustic. Meanwhile, DOGGR is also in the process of developing standards for the use of hydraulic fracturing all over California.

Where the state and federal worlds may collide is the California Coastal Commission, which is currently studying what jurisdiction they may or may not have. That’s according to Alison Dettmer, the commission’s deputy director for energy, ocean resources, and federal consistency, who said that there may be regulatory authority through the commission’s review of the EPA’s NPDES permits or perhaps through its federal consistency review of “outer continental shelf” plans. Nothing is yet clear, but the commission has started asking whether fracking will be used in any new onshore or offshore oil and gas projects. If it is, the applicants, said Dettmer, are asked “to submit an environmental analysis of the impacts of fracking on resources of the coastal zone.”

The Consul

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