A group of more than a dozen environmental advocates gathered outside of Long Beach City Hall last week, condemning the use of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” on offshore oil islands in Long Beach and surrounding areas.
The protest on Wednesday, March 12 took place as the California Coastal Commission was conducting its regular meeting inside the Council Chamber, following a report by the commission’s staff last month that unveiled new information about fracking operations off the California coast.
The protesters wore hazardous-materials suits, clutched boogie boards and held up signs reading “Free whales from offshore fracking” and “Tuna against fracking.”
Fracking, which involves using highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals to break through shale rock in order to capture oil under the ground, has been conducted by the oil industry for decades, but much has been concealed because of industry trade secrets.
In recent years, however, the practice has become a highly controversial subject with concerns brought up about whether the oil-extraction method may contaminate underground water wells, increase risk for oil spills in the ocean, emit harmful toxins into the air and induce seismic activity.
A new state law, known as SB 4, was passed by the California Legislature last year in an attempt to regulate fracking by requiring that oil operators report certain “well-stimulation treatments,” apply for permits and follow other mandates. The final regulations, which are being developed by the State’s Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), are to be rolled out January 2015.
The new law comes as oil operators have developed new technology while eyeing major opportunities for fracking in the Monterey Shale formation, an area extending from the Los Angeles Basin to northern California.
Oil industry representatives claim fracking poses no threats to the environment or the public, but environmental groups and some lawmakers say the law doesn’t go far enough and are rallying for a complete moratorium on the practice until a full analysis of the procedure’s environmental impacts can be analyzed.
Prompted by recent protests and reports, some nearby cities are addressing the matter on their own. Los Angeles has recently proposed a moratorium on fracking while Carson elected this week to temporarily halt all oil drilling.
As for offshore fracking, which is primarily the case in Long Beach, environmental groups said during the protest that the major concern is whether oil operators are dumping toxic chemicals, which are used during the fracking process, into the ocean.
“There’s the potential for that toxic chemical to get into marine life and maybe even into our food chain,” said Andrea Weber, a member of the San Francisco-based nonprofit environmental organization Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s gone unnoticed, unregulated and unpermitted for too long, and it’s time for California to step up, and the Coastal Commission is a part of that.”
The Coastal Commission’s report in February states that a total of 195 oil wells on offshore oil islands in Long Beach have been fracked since 1994. In addition, 17 wells have been fracked during that time off of Seal Beach, according to the report.
The regulatory agency’s staff pointed out that the Coastal Commission has no authority to regulate entire categories of development and only reviews development on a “case-by-case” basis. Still, any new oil and gas drilling projects require a coastal development permit, and the commission evaluates potential impacts of well-stimulation treatments as part of its application review.
Furthermore, the report indicates that state law prohibits the discharge of produced fracking fluids in state waters. The federal government, under the Environmental Protection Agency, however, allows fluids to be dumped into federal waters with the issuance of certain permits, such as the case in the Santa Barbara Channel in northern California.
Kevin Tougas, oil operations manager for the Long Beach Gas & Oil Department, confirmed in a phone interview with the Signal Tribune that offshore fracking in Long Beach is conducted within state waters and, therefore, dumping into the ocean is prohibited.
Tougas explained that the fracking done on the four oil islands off of Long Beach in contract with Occidental Petroleum are conducted in a “closed loop” system, meaning most waste fluids are re-injected back into the originating reservoir. He added that there are no impacts to drinking-water aquifers since the nearest groundwater wells are a mile and a half to two miles away from the Long Beach oil field.
“There’s nothing that we do in the oil field that ends up in the ocean,” Tougas said.
Environmentalists, however, say offshore fracking still poses major risks for environmental habitats, especially in areas where oil operators are allowed to dump fracking fluids with known carcinogens into federal waters, such as in San Pedro Bay and the Santa Barbara Channel.
“Our real focus is on protecting imperiled species in our habitats, and we’re very concerned about fracking offshore because the Santa Barbara Channel is an important habitat for blue whales and a lot of other wildlife,” said Miyoko Sakashita, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Fracking is just an inherently dangerous activity. They use really high pressures and a lot of toxic chemicals.”
Sakashita added that fracking also increases the risk of oil spills because of the use of high pressures. “A lot of the offshore infrastructure is really aging and old, so there’s real potential for loss of well control and an oil spill,” she said.
The protest in Long Beach came before environmental groups from across the state joined in Sacramento on Saturday, March 15 for one of the largest rallies against fracking in California to date. Organized by the statewide coalition Californians Against Fracking and more than 80 organizations, the protest called on Gov. Jerry Brown to pass a moratorium on fracking.
A total of 20 buses picked up people from across the state to join the rally, said Alex Nagy, spokesperson for environmental-advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
“It’s just all about us getting the pressure on Jerry Brown, who is in favor of fracking,” she said. “We think he’s totally walking a bad line there … He’s calling himself a climate leader, but at the same time he thinks fracking is okay.”
Tougas added that, so far, the state’s new regulations have halted most fracking jobs in recent months because of the need to clarify a new groundwater-monitoring plan, however he expects the “confusion” to be eventually resolved.
Though Tougas said there have been no fracking cases in Long Beach so far this year, there were 10 permits issued last year. He said the City plans to request a permit to start fracking again by the end of this year.
“We’ll be probably filing our permit in the next couple weeks and, hopefully, we’ll receive a permit,” Tougas said. “We could be fracking in Long Beach this year… Fracking presents no more risk to the local habitat than drilling a well.”
Vice Mayor Robert Garcia, who represents the 1st Council District and serves as a member of the Coastal Commission, has previously stated during a mayoral candidate forum that he plans to bring up the issue to the City Council, but he has yet to do so.