California regulators have launched an investigation into offshore hydraulic fracturing after revelations that the practice had quietly occurred off the coast for the past two decades.
The California Coastal Commission promised to look into the extent of so-called fracking in federal and state waters and any potential risks.
"We take our obligation to protect the marine environment very seriously and we're going to be looking at this very carefully," executive director Charles Lester said Thursday during the commission meeting.
As a first step, the coastal panel planned to ask oil companies proposing new offshore drilling jobs if they will be using fracking and require them to submit an environmental review. It will determine further action after completing its fact-finding mission.
A recent report by The Associated Press documented at least a dozen instances of fracking since the late 1990s in the Santa Barbara Channel, site of a disastrous 1969 oil platform blowout that spurred the modern environmental movement. Earlier this year, federal regulators approved a new project, but work has not yet begun.
Fracking involves pumping huge quantities of water, sand and a mixture of chemicals at high pressures to break up rock formations to recover oil and gas. Offshore fracking typically uses less water compared with fracking on land, where the practice has led to various efforts to ban or curtail it.
The Coastal Commission, which is charged with protecting the shoreline and marine resources, was not aware until recently that fracking was occurring, mainly because of the complicated web of agencies involved, said Alison Dettmer, a deputy director.
For fracking that occurs more than three miles offshore, oversight falls to the federal government. If the work happens closer to land, state oil regulators get involved. The Coastal Commission has a say when an operation endangers marine mammals or water quality.
Besides fracking in federal waters, the practice has occurred a dozen times in state waters in recent years, according to FracFocus.org, a website formed by industry and intergovernmental groups in 2011. Since disclosure on the website is voluntary, statistics are not complete.
Dettmer said federal and state agencies have not routinely notified the Coastal Commission of fracking jobs in the past.
During Thursday's hearing, an audience member held a sign that read: "Ban All Fracking." Several residents urged the coastal panel to do everything in its power to stop the practice offshore.
Brian Segee, a staff attorney at the Environmental Defense Center, said he was concerned about the high pressures involved during fracking.
Companies are "doing that underwater. They're doing that off the coast. That is cause for concern if not alarm," he said.
The meeting comes after a band of state lawmakers last week called on the Coastal Commission and federal government to investigate. The oil industry has maintained that fracking is safe and not harmful to the environment.
The federal agency that oversees offshore drilling, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement or BSEE, initially counted only two fracks off California in the past two decades, according to internal emails obtained by the AP through the Freedom of Information Act. It later revised the figure to 12, but said it cannot be certain just how often fracking has been allowed.
In March, the agency approved an application by privately held DCOR LLC to perform three "mini-fracks" from a platform 10 miles off the coast. Since the 1969 disaster, new oil leases have been banned, but companies can still drill and do other oil exploration from 23 grandfathered-in platforms.
BSEE's Pacific regional director, Jaron Ming, told employees in an email earlier this year about the increased interest in offshore fracking within the agency and from the public.
"For that reason, I am asking you 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.'"
Records show that companies that have fracked off the California coast have had mixed success stimulating oil into new production. The largest offshore frack occurred in 2010 when Venoco Inc. targeted the Monterey Shale, a 1,750-square-mile area extending from the agricultural Central Valley to the Pacific Ocean that federal energy officials say could ultimately comprise two-thirds of the nation's shale oil reserves. The effort only mildly boosted production.