Restore the Offshore Fracking Moratorium

Oil Industry Practice Threatens Marine and Terrestrial Life

A Garibaldi swims in one of Santa Barbara's Marine Protected Areas.
Jessie Alstatt

We know that onshore and offshore hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for both oil and methane is damaging to our health, the environment, and California’s wildlife. It’s time to restore the federal moratorium on fracking.

On Tuesday September 6, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald tentatively rejected a plan by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to open more than 1,500 square miles of lands in Central California to oil drilling and fracking. He wrote in his ruling that the BLM failed to take “a hard look” at the environmental effects of the estimated 25 percent of new wells that would be devoted to fracking.

The petroleum extraction industry is also seeking new oil and gas deposits off the coast of California. If they find them, the companies will make every effort to set up offshore fracking operations as soon as possible. This is especially true since May 27, 2016, when the federal government lifted a moratorium on offshore fracking in the Santa Barbara Channel.

Recently, the California State Lands Commission authorized seven “Offshore Low-Energy Geophysical Surveys” using high-tech sonar equipment. The reasons for these surveys differ from each other, but the results are the same: detailed offshore sonar maps indicating where new oil and methane deposits are located. One of the companies involved in these surveys is Fugro Pelagos Inc. Its parent, Fugro N.V., is a multinational Dutch corporation that provides several offshore services including geotechnical, survey, sub-sea, and geoscience for “oil and gas exploration.”

Some of the problems associated with offshore oil and gas extraction are:

Offshore Fracking Can Cause Earthquakes

California’s coastline lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire earthquake zone. Highly pressurized toxic liquids used in hydraulic fracturing can start earthquakes by lubricating preexisting fault lines deep underground. This allows masses of rock to slide past each other. Both the U.S. Army and the United States Geological Survey have concluded that the practice of injecting pressurized water into deep rock formations causes earthquakes. Evidence also suggests that the risk of fracking-induced earthquakes can persist for years after the actual fluid injections stop.

The seven areas where these surveys are being conducted are offshore of Ocean Beach in San Francisco County, offshore of Santa Cruz to Moss Landing in Santa Cruz County, the Santa Maria Basin, the Santa Barbara Basin, offshore of Goleta in Southern Santa Barbara County, offshore of Goleta to Pt. Mugu in Ventura County, and offshore of Dana Point in Orange County. These locations are riddled with both known and unknown fault lines. In addition to these faults, there are undiscovered collaterals, or faults that branch off major fault lines.

For example, the Hosgri Fault Zone trends subparallel to California’s south-central coastline along the eastern margin of the Santa Maria Basin. The Hosgri is a right-lateral strand of the San Andreas Fault. On May 4, 2016, at the National Earthquake Conference in Long Beach, a leading scientist, Dr. Tom H. Jordan, chairman of the Southern California Earthquake Center, revealed that Southern California’s section of the San Andreas Fault is “locked, loaded, and ready to roll.” At the conference, Dr. Jordan warned that the springs on the San Andreas Fault have been wound very, very tight. “It’s been quiet since 1857 — too quiet.” Offshore fracking on or around the Hosgri Fault could trigger “The Big One,” a massive Fukushima-like magnitude 9 mega-thrust earthquake along the San Andreas Fault System.

At the same time, hydraulic fracturing in the vicinity of the dreaded Hosgri Fault Zone could cause a meltdown at the aging and dangerous Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. The Hosgri Fault lies just 2½ miles offshore from Diablo. The plant’s Unit 1 reactor and turbine-generator power block sit on top of the Diablo Cove Fault that runs east to west and cuts across the active Shoreline Fault which intersects the Hosgri Fault Line. The Diablo Cove Fault, the Shoreline Fault, and the Hosgri Fault lines are all seismically linked, and the power stored within this combined network of fault systems could create an earthquake sufficient to exceed Diablo Canyon’s safeguards.

Toxic Saltwater Intrusion into California’s Fresh Water Aquifers

The Santa Barbara Basin, along with other coastal areas, has had fluctuations in its water levels. In the 1970s its groundwater level dropped as much as 100 feet, which led to saltwater intrusion. Unfortunately, fracking for oil and gas off of Santa Barbara County’s coastline can result in the possibility of “toxic saltwater intrusion.” Toxic saltwater intrusion, the movement of chemical laden saline water into fresh water aquifers has the potential of contaminating the county’s precious agricultural and drinking-water supplies.

In the United States, there are about 750 compounds that have been listed as additives used in hydraulic fracturing. The combination of most of these chemicals remain protected from disclosure through various trade secret exemptions. Scientists analyzing fracking fluids have identified chemicals like formaldehyde as well as volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, all of which pose significant public health threats. VOCs like benzene are known to cause cancer based on evidence from studies conducted with both people and lab animals. Data collected from hundreds of fracking wells in California have found that the levels of benzene were up to 700 times greater then federal standards allow.

During this time of severe drought, human activities, especially groundwater pumping for crop irrigation and freshwater wells, has increased saltwater intrusion in many of our state’s coastal areas. Tsunamis, large storm surges, and rising sea levels can push saltwater even further inland. Brackish water has crept more than 12 miles inland close to Salinas. A moratorium on offshore fracking should be reinstated during this time of extreme drought so as to prevent the real possibility of toxic saltwater intrusion into our coastal fresh water aquifers.

Offshore Fracking Puts Marine Life in Harm’s Way

A coastal pipeline that ruptured last year in Santa Barbara County spilled more than 140,000 gallons of crude oil soiling the beach and killing hundreds of marine mammals and birds. The federal government has admitted that offshore fracking will increase the risk of yet more oil spills.

Oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel have federal permission to dump up to 9 billion gallons of frack-water into the ocean per year. At least 10 chemicals used in offshore fracking can seriously harm or kill a broad variety of marine species including otters, turtles, seabirds, and fish. The California Council on Science and Technology has identified some of these fracking fluids to be among the world’s most toxic chemicals to marine life. Another danger is that fracking support vessels run over sea turtles and whales. A recent study by Oregon State University cites that collisions with ships is one of the main reasons why the blue whale population has not recovered.

The burning of oil and methane leads to ocean acidification. Acidification is the ongoing change in the pH balance of our world’s oceans caused by the uptake of excessive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Studies have shown that a more acidic environment has a dramatic effect on some of the calcifying species, including oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. When shelled organisms are in peril, the entire marine food chain is at risk. More than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. An increase of offshore fracking in California will add to the planet’s CO2 load that threatens both our marine ecosystem and aquatic food supply, giving rise to severe economic consequences.

On August 17, 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement for approving fracking in federal waters off the California coastline without evaluating the possible dangers to a wide variety of marine creatures. This needless carnage of our offshore ecosystem and its inhabitants must be stopped!

Both Onshore and Offshore Fracking Has Accelerated Climate Destabilization

The relentless burning of fossil fuels like oil and methane into our atmosphere has caused a plethora of global environmental disasters. As our planet continues to heat up (2015 was the hottest year on record), excessive amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are responsible for much of California’s extreme drought and out-of-control forest fires as well as the massive storms and excessive flooding along the East Coast. While the petroleum extraction and refining industries privatize the profits and socialize the losses, we are left to suffer the consequence of their worldwide climate experiment gone wrong. As soaring temperatures set new records one has to ask, where’s the profit in a burnt out planet?

Because the extraction of oil and methane from our coastal waters is inherently dangerous and poses unacceptable health and economic risks, it’s time to take action and call for the reinstatement of a federal moratorium on offshore fracking in California.


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