STATEWIDE — An effort to block offshore fracking in federal waters off the California coast is officially underway, with legislators and state agencies urging the White House to take protective action and at least one environmental organization challenging the issue in court.
Allowing offshore fracking could be harmful to marine life and recreational fishing activities, opponents allege.
A Dec. 1 caucus letter from about two dozen California state senators to the White House urged Pres. Barack Obama to exercise his powers under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and permanently prohibit new offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters off the state’s coast.
Meanwhile the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a federal lawsuit Nov. 15 in Los Angeles, challenging a decision by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to allow oil and gas leasing, or fracking, in federal waters just beyond California’s shores.
President-elect Donald Trump could pursue fracking and drilling plans in federal lands, according to a BBC report. The BBC report stated Trump proposed to lift a moratorium on extracting forms of energy – such as oil and gas – from federal lands, opening the door for fracking activity.
Fracking is already prohibited within state waters. The two bureaus targeted in CBD’s federal lawsuit reportedly decided to permit offshore fracking in federal waters about six months ago.
A statement released by the Center for Biological Diversity shortly after its lawsuit filing said its action was a proactive measure to prevent a Republican controlled White House and legislature from pursuing new drilling opportunities off the southern and central California coast – particularly in the Santa Barbara Channel, which is home to cultural resources and submerged village sites of the Chumash people.
“The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most biologically diverse seascapes in the world. It contains a vast array of habitats and marine life, including giant kelp forests and threatened and endangered blue whales, sea otters and sea turtles,” CBD staff said in a released statement.
Similarly State Senate Democrats signed off the Dec. 1 caucus letter, hoping Obama would take action before he leaves office in order to protect marine life, recreational fishing and water quality.
“A sizable [oil] spill off our coast would have a devastating impact on our public health and safety, local and state economies, and our environment. Expanded offshore oil and gas drilling also undermines the important strides we have made both as a state and as a nation to address climate change and promote a clean energy economy,” the State Senate caucus letter to Obama stated.
The state senators added Obama must act “to ensure California is not threatened by increase offshore oil and gas drilling in the future.”
Allowing offshore fracking would result in numerous environmental and public health hazards such as the discharge of toxic wastewater, earthquakes and emission of hazardous air pollutants, according to the CBD lawsuit.
Fracking would also threaten a variety of marine species, the lawsuit continued.
“Every offshore frack increases the risk of poisoning our ocean, and that danger could now spread along our coast. Oil companies just dump fracking wastewater in the ocean, and we’re swimming in it along with the whales and sea turtles,” CBD attorney Kristen Monsell said in a released statement.
CBD staff also called on Obama to use his powers under the OCSLA to restrict fracking in federal waters off the California coast.
“The Obama administration could forestall expanded drilling off the California coast under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which gives the president authority to ‘withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the Outer Continental Shelf,” CBD staff stated.
Staff attorneys with the CBD hope the federal lawsuit will result in a court order prohibiting future approval of fracking in federal waters off the California coast unless the decision complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act.
The California Coastal Commission also discussed sending a letter to the White House to express opposition to offshore fracking in federal waters off the state’s coast.
Also campaigning Obama were the six U.S. senators from California, Oregon and Washington. Sens. Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feintein, Jeff Merkley, Edward Markey, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell all urged Obama to call for the permanent withdrawal of oil and gas drilling from federal waters up and down the West Coast.
“Opening up the coast to more fossil fuel development poses a threat to our oceans and the coastal economies that depend on them,” the six senators wrote in their Nov. 16 letter to Obama. “We ask you to use the authority granted to you under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) to prohibit future oil and gas leasing along the West Coast to protect the magnificent coastline forever.
“Without a permanent withdrawal, we cannot be certain that the coastline would not see new oil and gas development in the future,” the letter later continued.
While legislators, coastal commissioners and nonprofit agencies push for a permanent ban on fracking in federal waters off the California coast the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement both determined hydraulic fracturing to be a more efficient means to extract oil and gas (as opposed to conventional forms of extraction).
Fracking supporters claim the new form of oil and gas extraction has allowed the United States to become energy independent and helped maintain consumer gasoline prices at affordable levels.
Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources published a study on the costs and benefits of fracking in 2014; Yale Climate Connections said the report offered the fairest take on fracking.
“[Fracking] is driving an economic boom, with consequences described from ‘revolutionary’ to ‘disastrous.’ Reality lies somewhere in between. Unconventional energy generates income and, done well, can reduce air pollution and even water use compared with other fossil fuels. Alternatively, it could slow the adoption of renewables and, done poorly, release toxic chemicals into water and air,” the Annual Reviews study stated.
“Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity,” the report continued. “An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and particulate air pollution.”
A list of the pros and cons of fracking was also listed in a May 2015 article published by Yale Climate Connections.