California fracking

Reports have found that undocumented fracking has been occurring off the coasts of California. Photo: Burkard

Off the coast of some of Southern California's most iconic beaches, oil companies are utilizing an environmentally controversial process to tap into oil deposits previously considered unreachable. The procedure, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has received widespread criticism from environmental groups like the Surfrider Foundation and has occurred much more than was previously known. But it’s not the act of fracking alone that has environmental groups raising red flags, it’s that it’s happening with very little oversight from government agencies.

The physical process of fracking involves shooting a highly pressurized mix of sand, chemicals, and water into the earth in hopes of releasing trapped oil and natural gas deposits that would have otherwise been out of reach with traditional drilling methods. There are more than 30 existing wells off the coast of California and, depending on their location, the regulatory oversight falls under the federal or state government.

Although there is no evidence that offshore hydraulic fracturing has led to any spills or chemical leaks, the fact that the practice is happening without adequate government oversight is worrisome. A recent report found that fracking has occurred at wells located out to sea from towns like Huntington, Long Beach, Seal Beach, and Santa Barbara more than 200 times over the past two decades. When presented with this information, the agencies responsible for overseeing drilling in state waters were oblivious.

The federal government and the EPA are responsible for wells located more than three miles off the coast. Ironically, through a provision in the Clean Water Act, those wells do not have to disclose what chemicals they've used for fracking as they've been deemed "trade secrets." Many of the wells treat some of the liquids used for fracking and then dump them back in the ocean.

The process of monitoring fracking in state waters has proven to be far more murky. There are three organizations tasked with monitoring drilling in state waters (the State Land Commission, California Coastal Commission, and the Dept. of Oil, Gas, and Geo-Thermal Resources), yet surprisingly, when the AP broke a story about fracking occurring in state waters, all three agencies were unaware that it had occurred.

In response to the finding, state agencies conducted a review but revealed that there was serious confusion as to which organization was responsible for the oversight of fracking in state waters. "It's pretty baffling that they don't know who's responsible for monitoring this. They really need to get their act together and hammer out a regulatory plan," said Stefanie Sekich of the Surfrider Foundation.

Allison Dettmer of the California Coastal Commission echoed Sekich’s sentiments in a comment given to the AP. “We still need to sort out what authority, if any, we have over fracking operations in state waters; it’s very complicated."

In September, the state passed a law that would require oil companies to disclose what chemicals they use to frack in state waters. However, it won't take effect until 2015.