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Commission Seeks to “Lift the Fog on Fracking”

February 28 2014 | Ocean Ecosystems, Water Quality,
by Stefanie Sekich-Quinn

In August 2013, the Associated Press reported that oil companies have used hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and other types of “well stimulation treatments” to access oil beneath state and federal waters for decades without notifying state agencies that the practice has been occurring.

This discovery was a big wakeup call that sent some regulators scrambling to figure out how fracking had occurred without their awareness. The California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over oil and gas activities that occur in or affect state waters, was the first agency to step up. In August, the Commission vowed to investigate the undisclosed fracking and to identify potential actions it could take to address the issue.

Fast forward to January 2014. In anticipation of a Commission briefing on fracking,
a coalition of coastal activists (including Surfrider, Coastal Protection Network, Ocean Foundation and Environmental Defense Center) spent several weeks identifying what might be done to monitor and regulate the practice effectively. We identified several state and federal agencies that ought to be playing a part in regulating offshore fracking. We also produced a brief small report, “Lift the Fog on Ocean Fracking,” which recommended common-sense measures that the CCC might adopt to start bringing offshore fracking under control. To review the full set of recommendations go here. To review our accompanying press release go here.

At the February 2014 Commission hearing, staff provided the Commission and the public with a briefing about their investigation. The briefing was well attended by citizens who shared their concerns about offshore fracking, as well as representatives of the oil and gas industry, who attempted to convince the Commission that no action was needed. Listen to a quick radio clip with great quotes from those who attended.

For their part, the Commissioners agreed on a pragmatic strategy for taking near-term action and gathering more information. In a nutshell, the Commission agreed on the following: 

  • Oil companies conducting new fracking and other well stimulation treatments in state waters must obtain a Coastal Development Permit (CDP). The will help bring needed transparency to offshore fracking and allow the Commission evaluate the potential impacts of the practice as part of the permitting process.
  • The Commission will enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the California Department of Conservation to delineate the agencies’ respective authorities, responsibilities, and notification and reporting requirements, as relevant to fracking and other well stimulation treatments.
  • The Commission will work with federal regulatory agencies such as U.S. EPA and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) it to determine where fracking has been approved in older permits, some issued pre-Coastal Act, for drilling in federal waters.
  • The Commission will also ask federal regulators to notify it when new offshore oil-drilling activities may include well stimulation treatments, so that it may exercise its own regulatory authority under state and federal law.
  • The Commission will advise U.S. EPA to modify its general permit for offshore oil and gas activities to require additional Commission review.
  • The Commission will request to participate in upcoming fracking science and policy processes required by Senate Bill 4, which was enacted in 2013 to establish a statewide regulatory framework for fracking. Specifically, the Commission will ask to be part of the Independent Scientific Study led by the California Natural Resources Agency (“SB 4 Science Study”) and the development of a statewide Environmental Impact Report by the Department of Conservation.
  • The Commission will convene a public workshop after the release of the SB 4 Science Study to examine the study’s results and identify its next steps.

We were pleased to see that these actions closely mirrored our recommendations. However, this investigation is just a first step toward reigning in undisclosed fracking and establishing a stringent statewide regulatory framework for the practice. The Commission has an important, if difficult, role to ensure that any fracking in state and federal waters meets the requirements of the Coastal Act. Although there is much work to be done, coastal advocates applaud the Commission for taking the initial steps to address this complicated situation and assure Californians that it takes seriously its responsibility to protect our coastal resources.

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